Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing two cases of discrimination allegedly suffered by two Catholic school teachers. A victory by the two teachers could represent a very important success for Catholic school teachers everywhere, including the 7,300+ such educators here in New Jersey, when it comes to being free from insidious employment discrimination. Even if your employer is a religion-based one, you may still be able to sue them and recover valuable compensation for discrimination or harassment you’ve suffered. If you’ve been harmed by age, sex, disability or other forms of discrimination by your religious employer, be sure you consult an experienced New Jersey employment discrimination attorney and investigate your legal options.
A. M.-B., who taught at an elementary school in Hermosa Beach, Cal., was let go at age 65 and sued for age discrimination. K.B., who taught at an elementary school in Torrance, Cal., had her employment ended shortly after she informed her employer that she would need to take medical leave to treat her breast cancer, so she sued for disability discrimination.
Both of these teachers might have had very strong cases if their employers had been private companies or public agencies. For employees like teachers at religious schools, it’s more complicated. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that the government cannot interfere in a religious entity’s decisions about who is or is not employed as a minister of that entity. This “ministerial exception” within discrimination law is rooted in the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment.
That, however, leaves one extremely important question… what exactly makes an employee of a religious entity a minister? A music minister at a Catholic parish and an instructor in religious doctrine at a seminary are both examples of someone who would fall under this exception. On the other hand, the people who clean the facilities at an area synagogue or the people who run the concession stand at a local Catholic high school’s football stadium would not, based on those duties alone, be ministers. Federal law says that that latter group are still protected by discrimination law and can sue if they are the victims of workplace discrimination.
How courts decide who is, or is not, a ‘ministerial’ employee
The federal courts must look at four things to decide whether an employee is or is not a minister. Those are: “(1) whether the employer held the employee out as a minister by bestowing a formal religious title; (2) whether the employee’s title reflected ministerial substance and training; (3) whether the employee held herself out as a minister; and (4) whether the employee’s job duties included “important religious functions.”
A.M.-B. and K.B. each held the title of “teacher,” and their official titles carried no connotation of ministry. Their formal training and credentials were in education, not ministry, and they did not hold themselves out as ministers. However, they did perform certain ministry-related functions, such as teaching religion and leading their students in daily prayers.
The ruling by the Supreme Court in this case could clarify what the limits are when it comes to that ministerial exception. A win by the teachers could possibly create boundaries that say that, just because you teach religion 30 minutes per day four days per week and lead your students in daily prayers, that doesn’t make you someone who is barred from suing when you are the victim of workplace discrimination.
Discrimination law is periodically evolving. To make sure that you have the strongest case possible to get the full recovery you deserve, you need a legal team that is fully versed on the law and all its recent changes. The knowledgeable New Jersey employment discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates are here to help, offering our clients keen advice, determined advocacy and the most in-depth knowledge of the law and the courts. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation to discuss how we can assist you.