Over the past forty years, courts have developed the “ministerial exception,” a legal doctrine which has immunized churches from employment-based claims brought by their clergy (and others with significant religious duties). The lower courts have generally recognized the exception, though they have disagreed on when exactly it applies and what exactly it covers. The Supreme Court, however, has never clarified its boundaries or even said it exists at all.
This fall, the United States Supreme Court heard argument in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, its first ministerial exception case. The case involves Cheryl Perich, a teacher at a Lutheran parochial school and commissioned minister in the faith, who brought state and federal retaliation claims against the church that had employed her. Hosanna-Tabor raises various issues about the ministerial exception itself—whether it exists, how it applies, and who it covers. It also raises larger questions about the right of church autonomy, the meaning of Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), and the intersection of equality and liberty.