Thursday, June 8, 2017

David L. Hudson Jr.: Federal Court invokes "ministerial exception" to beat discrimination claim

  A former Milwaukee-based private elementary school teacher had her disability discrimination lawsuit rejected by a federal court, because of the so-called ministerial exception. This doctrine holds that government officials should not interfere with the internal affairs of religious institutions. Ostensibly, the doctrine gives churches and religious organizations religious freedom. In reality, it also leads to discrimination against employees.

  Miriam Grussgot, who taught Jewish Studies and Hebrew at Milwaukee Jewish Day School, contended that the school fired her because of a mental impairment caused by a brain tumor. She sued under a 1990 federal law called the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers to reasonably accommodate workers with disabilities.

  However, the school argued that Grussgot’s lawsuit should be dismissed because of the ministerial exception, which prohibits state encroachment into religious entities’ internal affairs. U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Wisconsin J.P. Stadtmueller agreed with the school in his May 30 opinion in Grussgott v. Milwaukee Jewish Day School.

  Judge Stadtmueller relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Church & Sch. v. EEOC (2012). In that decision, the high court ruled that a religious-based school could terminate a called teacher because she was a ministerial employee.

  Grussgott argued that the ministerial exception should not apply to her and her lawsuit because she taught Judaism from a cultural and historical perspective and she did not accept a religious call to her position like the teacher in the Hosanna-Tabor case.

  Judge Stadtmueller recognized that Grussgott’s case “is not as clear cut as Hosanna-Tabor,” but still ruled in favor of the religious school. “Like Hosanna-Tabor, this Court will not consult a stopwatch to determine the ratio between her religious and secular instruction,” he wrote. “Regardless of any secular duties [Grussgott] may have had, [her] role included an unmistakable religious dimension.”

  It is true, as Judge Stadtmueller noted, that the ministerial exception ensures “federal courts stay out of matters of faith and doctrine as required by the First Amendment.”

  However, it is also true, as I warned in a previous analysis, that the ministerial exception allows religious-based employers to discriminate against employees even if those employees do not carry out much religious functions. This decision is part of a trend of more and more courts granting religious employers a free pass to bypass discrimination claims.

  About the author: David L. Hudson, Jr. is the author of Let the Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Freedom of Expression in American Schools and Teen Legal Rights (3rd Edition).

  This article was published by the Newseum Institute.

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