Churches, church schools and other religious institutions don’t always have to follow federal employment laws. That’s because religious entities are entitled to operate free of interference with their religious practices—if the employees in question are part of that religious practice.
That doesn’t mean, however, that ordinary staff members such as secretaries and janitors aren’t protected by discrimination laws. The exception is appropriately referred to as the “ministerial exception.”
Recent case: Cheryl Perich worked as an elementary teacher for a Lutheran school, which employs two kinds of teachers—regular and those “called” to teach. Called teachers taught religious classes, led students in prayer and received special training. Perich was a called teacher.
Perich, who had been out on disability leave, had recovered enough to earn a clean bill of health from her doctor and had no medical restrictions. Yet the school fired her anyway when she tried to return to work. The EEOC sued on her behalf, claiming the school regarded her as disabled and fired her because it believed she was unable to safely teach.
But the court considering the case said Perich fit into the ministerial exception because of her special status as a religious instructor. Religious organizations are free to determine who can provide religious instruction, the court reasoned, and don’t have to comply with federal employment laws. It would have been different if Perich had been a regular teacher. (EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church, No. 07-14124, ED MI, 2008)
Final note: If your organization is religiously based, you still need to pay attention to HR laws. Make sure you find an attorney well versed in the First Amendment and employment law. Your lawyer can help you determine who is qualified for the ministerial exception and who is not.
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