SJC Rules the First Amendment’s “Ministerial Exception” to Anti-discrimination laws applies to Religious Education Teacher

September 21, 2012

We live in a different country.

The First Amendment protects religious institutions from government interference and, in the case of Temple Emanuel Newton v. TheMassachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, prevents a religious education teacher from bringing a claim under the state and federal antidiscrimination laws against the religious institution that employed her. In many ways, the case was quite simple. Under the “ministerial exception” to the anti-discrimination laws, religious institutions have long been allowed to discriminate in their internal affairs. Good luck finding a woman priest in a Catholic church for example. In this case, however, the plaintiff was a teacher, not an ordained minister, priest or rabbi, and was an employee hired to teach students about Jewish “learning, worship and acts of loving kindness” with a focus on Jewish holidays, customs, and history; the Torah; ancient and modern Israel; the Hebrew language; and prayer. Plaintiff did not work for a parochial school but rather what was solely a religious school. Given this job description, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that the teacher’s job was essentially that of a “minister” and that, as such, was not subject to the anti-discrimination laws. It does not matter whether the “minister” is technically ordained but rather whether the employee serves in a ministerial capacity. The SJC held that the teacher in this case did serve in such capacity and affirmed dismissal of the teacher’s charge of discrimination.

At a time when this country is again under attack for taking its First Amendment rights seriously, it is good to remember that such rights are often inconvenient to others, and their exercise often can offend the larger group. That is precisely why they are protected rights. Otherwise, they would be eroded and lost if they were to be subject to an offensiveness standard. It may be a hard lesson for the unemployed teacher or for those burning American flags, but it is the law and it protects everyone.