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What's the ministerial exception to a wrongful termination claim?

The Supreme Court of the United States just handed down another blow that weakens the federal protections employees have against wrongful termination. Citing the "ministerial exception," the SCOTUS rejected the claims against two California religious schools who were accused of discrimination and illegal termination of their employees.

What's the ministerial exception? Basically it's a rule that says religious institutions aren't bound by the same laws as other employers when it comes to their right to hire and fire their ministers. Given the inherent freedom of religion that is so valued in this country, that may sound reasonable -- until you realize that it means:

  • A church can fire a minister because they're black (maybe because the congregation is largely white)
  • A church can fire a minister who becomes disabled or develops an illness (for example, someone who contracts AIDS due to a long-ago needle stick)

If those examples seem unfair, consider this: The new ruling essentially guts the anti-discrimination protections for thousands of teachers all over the country because religious institutions have broad latitude to decide who is a minister in their organization and who isn't. Earlier SCOTUS rulings have already made the definition of who qualifies as a minister so vague that it's pretty much up to the religious institution -- including schools and universities with a religious focus -- to decide what that means.

In the cases in question, one teacher was fired due to age discrimination. The other was terminated simply because she asked for leave to deal with a breast cancer diagnosis. Both were elementary school teachers in Catholic schools. One taught only 200 minutes of religious material per week, but that was enough to make her a "minister."

Protection against wrongful termination isn't always clear, especially in the wake of rulings like these. If you're concerned about your legal options with your employer, it may be wise to consult with an attorney before you decide what steps to take.

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