What Is the Ministerial Exception?


Neal Hardin

A mission statement is central to the identity of all organizations. And to advance that mission, institutions need people who align with their core values and actively carry them out.

This is especially true for a ministry because what it believes is at the core of everything it does. And if its mission includes teaching and spreading those beliefs, then it is critical that the ministry—rather than the government—decides who performs this vital function.

This is why our courts have recognized the principle of the “ministerial exception.”

What is the ministerial exception, and who qualifies for it?

The ministerial exception allows religious organizations to make employment decisions regarding ministers without government interference.

In Hosanna-Tabor, the U.S. Supreme Court stated, “The authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful – a matter ‘strictly ecclesiastical’ – is the church’s alone.” This means that when an employment position at any faith-based ministry is ministerial, religious organizations have total freedom to make employment decisions.

In 2020, the Supreme Court further clarified the ministerial exception in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru. In a 7-2 opinion, the Court ruled that a religious organization’s ministers (in this case, teachers at a religious school) need not necessarily have a formal title of “minister” or have theological training to fall under the ministerial exception. Instead, any definition of “minister” should ultimately be based on “what an employee does.” Meaning the religious function of employees should be the most important consideration as to whether they fall under the ministerial exception.


The Supreme Court has now twice upheld the ministerial exception as a fundamental piece of the First Amendment and essential to the free exercise of religion. Everyone benefits when the government is not interfering in the hiring decisions of a religious organization when it selects who teaches its faith, leads its ministry, or conducts worship or other important ceremonies.

Take Action

One way to improve your ministry’s legal protections is by clearly communicating the ministerial responsibilities of your employees through well-crafted job descriptions.

Members of the ADF Church & Ministry Alliance have access to sample job descriptions for various positions that clearly communicate the position’s ministerial responsibilities.

The ADF Church & Ministry Alliance is an affordable legal membership program that provides direct access to expert religious freedom attorneys, so you can get back to focusing on what matters most: serving people and sharing the Gospel.

Click here to learn more about the benefits of becoming a member.

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