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The Ministerial Exception: Can Employees Working for Religious Institutions Sue for Discrimination in California?


Federal and state anti-discrimination laws cover most private employers in California. Among other things, this means an employer cannot fire an employee on the basis of their sex or religious beliefs. But the courts have carved out an important exception to these laws for religious institutions: the ministerial exemption/exception.

As explained by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694 (2012), the exception “precludes application of [anti-discrimination] legislation to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.” In this case, a religious teacher at a Lutheran school sued her former employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act for disability discrimination. But the Supreme Court held such a lawsuit was barred by the ministerial exception, as it would amount to government interference with the “free exercise” of the school’s religious freedom under the First Amendment.

Calif. Court Declines to Extend Ministerial Exception to Breach of Contract Claim

Although the California Supreme Court was emphatic that ministerial employees could not sue religious institutions under employment discrimination law, the justices explicitly stated their ruling did not take a position “on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers.” However, a California appeals court recently took up these questions and ruled, at least in part, in favor of the employee.

The case, Sumner v. Simpson University, involves a religious school, similar to the situation in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hosanna-Tabor decision. Here, the plaintiff served as dean of a seminary at Simpson University, a private college affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The plaintiff worked under an employment contract that incorporated a separate faculty handbook spelling out the university’s employment policies.

In 2011, the school terminated the plaintiff’s employment. After she filed an internal grievance, the school reinstated her. But she was then terminated a second time for “insubordination.” At this point the plaintiff sued the university for breach of contract and a number of torts, including defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The university cited the ministerial exception as an affirmative defense to all of the plaintiff’s allegations.

Although the trial court sided with the university and granted it summary judgment, the California Third District Court of Appeal disagreed with respect to the breach of contract claim. It held that while the university qualified as a “religious group” under the First Amendment and the plaintiff was a “ministerial employee,” the ministerial exception did not bar the plaintiff’s lawsuit, which was not based on her “religious qualification or performance as a religious leader.” Rather, her termination turned on whether or not she committed “insubordination,” a term defined in the faculty handbook.

On the other hand, the Third District agreed with the trial court that the ministerial exception did bar the plaintiff’s tort claims. Allowing an employee to sue a religious employer for matters like defamation or invasion of privacy would effectively require courts to examine the “ecclesiastical functions of the church,” which would render the ministerial exception “meaningless,” in the court’s words.

Do You Have Questions About Your Rights as an Employee of a Religious Organization?

If you work for a religious employer and have questions or concerns about your legal rights, you should contact a qualified California employment law attorney right away.




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* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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