COURT DETERMINES THAT MINISTERIAL EXCEPTION DOES NOT APPLY TO RELIGION TEACHER

Religious institutions, including parochial schools, have an interest in correctly determining whether employees are “ministers.”  Due to the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses, religious organizations have wide discretion in choosing their own leaders and are thus exempt from generally applicable employment laws when it comes to ministers.  This week, in Biel v. St. James School, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit split on the decision of whether a teacher whose duties included teaching religion at a Catholic school was a minister.

The court considered the following elements in favor of finding her to be a minister:

  • She was an adherent to the Catholic faith;
  • She taught religion as part of her duties;
  • She was required to incorporate Catholic teachings in her secular classes;
  • Her contract required her to model, teach and promote behavior in conformity with the doctrine of the Church; and
  • The school’s evaluation of her performance included an assessment of whether she infused Catholic values throughout her teachings.

Ultimately, a majority of the court determined that she was not a minister, based on the following:

  • She had no training in teaching Catholic pedagogy at the time she was hired;
  • She joined her students in prayers, but did not lead the prayers;
  • She attended school-wide Mass, but her sole responsibility was to keep her students orderly;
  • She was not required to be Catholic in order to be hired for her position;
  • She had previously worked at non-Catholic schools as a teacher;
  • Her title was “Grade 5 Teacher,” which does not convey a religious meaning; and
  • The curriculum she used to teach religion was a textbook chosen by the school.

Pursuant to this ruling, parochial schools must understand that, even though a teacher is responsible for teaching and promoting the religious tenets of the institution, employment decisions about that teacher do not necessarily fall within the First Amendment’s guarantee of noninterference in religious self-governance.