February 13, 2012

Forum’s focus is ‘ministerial exception’ ruling

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A forum at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will examine the impact and possible fallout from last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision involving employment discrimination laws and religious organizations.

The “Hot Legal Topics” forum will look at the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision that recognizes a “ministerial exception” to an anti-discrimination law for the first time.  The discussion begins at 6 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 16, in the Hiram H. Lesar Law Building, room 102, at the SIU School of Law. It will include an overview of the case, a panel discussion, and an opportunity for audience members to ask questions.  The event is free and open to the public.  Illinois lawyers will receive 1.0 continuing legal education credit.

Media Advisory

Reporters, photographers and camera crews are welcome to attend the “Hot Legal Topics” panel discussion.  For more information contact Alicia Ruiz, the law school’s director of communication and outreach, at 618/453-8700.

The Jan. 11 decision is the most important First Amendment case that the Supreme Court has decided in the last 20 years, said Valerie J. Munson, a clinical assistant professor of law who specializes in religion and the law.  Munson will also be a forum speaker and panel moderator. 

“It’s really a collision of two particularly important core values in our society,” she said.  “Religious freedom is something Americans cherish.  But anti-discrimination laws are also something that we hold very dear.  How courts go about making these decisions when two very important values collide is tricky business.”

Panelists will include Steven J. Macias, a visiting assistant professor who teaches constitutional law at the SIU School of Law; the Rev. Arthur C. “Chris” Repp of the Epiphany Lutheran Church in Carbondale; and Elizabeth George, the principal at Trinity Christian School in Carbondale. 

The Supreme Court decision is narrow in scope and limited only to an employment discrimination claim. Munson said.  But the decision could impact how churches, schools, hospitals and other faith-affiliated employers define the roles of employees who have a religious component within their jobs, and also how job applicants will view working for faith-affiliated employers, she said.

“Faith-affiliated employers are going to have to make some hard decisions about how they will respond,” she said.  

The Jan. 11 decision involved a teacher in Michigan who sued to get her job back at a school affiliated with Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod after being on disability leave due to narcolepsy.  The opinion states the teacher had academic and theological training and was designated a “called” teacher and commissioned minister.  She taught secular subjects, a religion class, and also occasionally led religious functions at the school.  When the teacher tried to return to her classroom after a medical leave of a few months, she learned that a “lay teacher” had been hired to fill her job for the rest of the school year and that administration was seeking her resignation in exchange for paying a small portion of her health insurance premiums.

The teacher refused to resign, told the administration that she was going to pursue a legal remedy, sought legal advice, and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that her firing violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.   A federal court initially sided with the school administration in a lawsuit brought by the EEOC. But an appeals court later decided the teacher did not qualify for the “ministerial exception,” which covers the employment relationships between religious institutions and certain employees, and ruled the lawsuit could proceed.

While the opinion written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., unanimously sided with the school administration in the lawsuit, the court did not adopt a position on whether the ministerial exception bars other types of claims or other types of employment positions.  In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., wrote that it is important that courts focus on the functions that people working for religious entities actually perform in deciding whether their position falls within the parameters of “ministerial exception.”

The exception “should apply to any ‘employee’ who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith,” Alito wrote.  “If a religious group believes that the ability of such an employee to perform these key functions has been compromised, then the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom protects the group’s right to remove the employee from his or her position.”

The decision has brought significant attention to the ministerial exception doctrine, said Munson, whose expertise includes church law and employment issues.  Even though the law has been in existence a long time it is a legal doctrine that many people working for religious entities were unaware of, she said.

“This has brought into public consciousness how the First Amendment religious clauses operate in what many people believe to be quasi-secular work environments,” she said.