How the Supreme Court's 2020 Ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School Affects Churches and Ministries

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru

The Supreme Court’s July 2020 decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru involved two cases in which religious schools were sued by former teachers claiming wrongful termination. Alliance Defending Freedom filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the schools.

Federal employment law prohibits discrimination based on a variety of employee characteristics. But courts have long held that “ministers” may not assert employment discrimination claims against the churches and religious organizations that employ them. In 2012, the Supreme Court not only unanimously affirmed the existence of this constitutionally-based “ministerial exception,” but also embraced a fairly broad understanding of who is a “minister.” The Court understood the need to protect religious organizations’ freedom to choose those who will pass along the faith to the younger generation, without undue government interference.

In its July ruling in favor of the religious schools, the Court clarified and broadened the scope of the ministerial exception. Importantly, the Court ruled that the exemption is based on what an employee does, not just the employee’s title or training. If an employee’s duties include educating people in the faith, instilling its teachings and values, or training others how to live out the faith, they are considered a minister. And courts should give some deference to churches in how those churches view their ministers. All this helps provide religious schools with the freedom they need to make proper decisions when hiring, promoting, firing, and disciplining teachers.

How does the ministerial exception protect churches and ministries?

The strengthened ministerial exception protects the ability of churches and ministries to choose who teaches the faith without worrying about government intervention. Without this exception, churches and ministries could be subject to various employment regulations, including those that prevent employment decisions on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In an increasingly litigious society, strong precedent also has the benefit of reducing the risk of lawsuits that drain ministry resources.

The right protected by the ministerial exception is part of a broader legal concept called church autonomy – the right of churches and ministries to govern themselves. In addition to the ministerial exception, the federal law forbidding discrimination in employment explicitly permits religious employers to prefer individuals “of a particular religion.” Most state statutes have similar exemptions. This means that “religious organizations” may consider an applicant’s or employee’s religious beliefs and conduct in hiring and firing decisions.

What questions still remain after the Our Lady of Guadalupe School decision?

While Our Lady of Guadalupe School was a positive ruling, it did not comprehensively address every question that could impact churches and ministries, such as:

  • How much will courts defer to religious organizations when determining who is a ministerial employee?
  • When dealing with non-ministerial employees, to what extent may religious organizations maintain and enforce faith-based conduct standards that reflect their beliefs about marriage, sexual morality, and the distinction between the sexes?

What challenges related to employment are ahead for churches and ministries?

Recent federal proposals regarding sexual orientation and gender identity legislation are particularly dangerous for churches, ministries, and religious schools. For example, the deceptively named “Equality Act” would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as protected classes to various laws in ways that would prohibit religious organizations from properly living out and teaching their faith.

A similar piece of legislation, titled “Fairness for All,” is another deceptively named bill that poses many of the same threats to religious freedom.

Additionally, some government officials are calling into question the religious nature of ministries. For example, the State of Illinois has questioned whether a church-related ministry that serves low-income students in Chicago is religious enough to qualify for religious protections under state law. Governments cannot be allowed to undermine the religious nature of ministries.

What can I do to better protect my church or ministry?

The Our Lady of Guadalupe School decision should motivate churches and ministries to ensure that their governing documents, which are an important line of defense, provide the strongest possible religious freedom protections. Church and ministry leaders should ask the following questions:

  • Do your church or ministry’s governing documents clearly express your beliefs?
  • Have your employees signed a statement affirming that they have read, agree with, and will abide by your church or ministry’s beliefs?
  • Does your church or ministry have a code of Christian conduct, grounded in the statement of faith, which establishes behavioral expectations for employees, volunteers, teachers, administrators, campers, students, etc.?
  • Does your church or ministry have job descriptions that reflect employees’ ministerial duties?

Members of the ADF Church & Ministry Alliance have access to ADF attorneys who can offer guidance on religious liberty issues, help you understand the legal significance of the language you use to describe your ministry, and draw your attention to potential legal issues which could impact your kingdom work. We want you to have peace of mind ensuring you stand on a firm legal foundation.

Click here to learn more about the membership.

Download this Resource


Share this Resource