As a religious institution, are we insulated from discrimination liability?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Q. I am the principal of a Catholic school. I’ve always believed that, because we are a religious institution, discrimination laws don’t apply to us. While we certainly never intend to discriminate against our employees, we do make decisions from time to time that an employee could challenge in court. Am I right that we don’t have to worry about discrimination liability?

A. You are correct that certain employees of religious institutions are exempted from employment discrimination laws under what is known as the “ministerial exception.” It is an off-shoot of a religious institution’s Constitutional right to be free from judicial interference in the selection of ministerial employees.

For this exception to bar an employment discrimination claim: (1) the employer must be a religious institution; and (2) the employee must be a ministerial employee.

According to a recent decision by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, an employee who teaches primarily secular subjects is not covered by the ministerial exception. Thus, the answer to your question depends on an individualized assessment of each employee’s job duties.

Only employees whose primary function is spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship will be exempted from coverage of discrimination laws.

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