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Ministerial Exception

Ministerial Exception

Definition

A legal doctrine applying to religious institutions that provides an exemption from federal employment discrimination laws for practices that would otherwise be considered discriminatory. The rationale for the ministerial exception is that it prevents state interference with the governance of religious institutions, which would violate the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution's establishment and free exercise clauses. The ministerial exception allows such institutions wide latitude in determining which persons it chooses to employ and retain, even if otherwise discriminatory practices are used in making these determinations. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 unanimously upheld a church's right to terminate a lay teacher (but one who also taught daily religion classes) in contravention of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), by means of the ministerial exception to that statute. (See Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. EEOC, 2012 U.S. LEXIS 578 (Jan. 11, 2012).) One caveat to the ministerial exception is that it applies only to employment discrimination laws, rather than to all laws regulating employment. Accordingly, the ministerial exception would not apply, for example, to allegations of sexual harassment or breach of an employment contract.

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