A ruling issued by the US Supreme Court (Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267) has clear implications for PCA churches and church-governed schools. In a 7-2 ruling, the United States Supreme Court ruled that churches and church-governed schools are protected from employment discrimination claims which deal with matters of ‘faith and doctrine.’
According to the majority opinion, “Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.”
The case before the court was brought by two schoolteachers terminated by Roman Catholic schools. The teachers filed employment discrimination lawsuits against the schools. The schools contended that their decision was based on poor performance, such as the failure to observe or inability to implement the required classroom curriculum. Under the facts of this case, the court ruled the school has the right to terminate such employees and be protected from discrimination laws because of the religious nature of the institution.
Here are four important highlights from the court’s ruling:
- The court noted the “independence of religious institutions in matters of ‘faith and doctrine’ and ‘matters of church government.’” Though churches and church-related schools are protected by this ruling, it is important for these institutions to have clear governance structures when it comes to hiring and retaining employees.
- The precedent of ministerial exception extends to employees who may have a title other than minister. The court applied the exception more broadly to employees who are charged with teaching the church’s message and carrying out its mission. This is an important precedent when it comes to the church’s ability to oversee non-ordained employees. As the court’s opinion states, “What matters is what an employee does” not merely their job title.
- The court noted that the schools in question had written employment agreements in place that “set out the schools’ mission to develop and promote a Catholic School faith community; imposed commitments regarding religious instruction, worship, and personal modeling of the faith; and explained that teachers’ performance would be reviewed on those bases.” This reinforces the importance for churches and schools to have clearly articulated and documented job descriptions and mission statements that will serve as guides for hiring, retaining, and measuring the performance of employees.
- The court was clear to say their ruling does not provide a rigid formula for future cases. However, it does make clear the factors they are looking for to establish the religious nature of a job function.
PCA Retirement & Benefits offers multiple resources to administrators to assist with hiring and retaining employees and seeks to provide the latest updates about ministry and clergy news.
Disclaimer: This summary is provided as an informational tool. It is not intended to be, and should not be considered, legal advice. If expert assistance is needed, the services of a competent legal professional should be sought.
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