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Ministerial Exception Not Applicable

January 15, 2019

Ninth circuit finds no application of the “ministerial exception” to ADA claim of teacher at religious school

Recently, the Ninth Circuit in Biel v. St James School, 911 F. 3d 603 (9th Cir. 2018) held that the “ministerial exception,” an affirmative defense to employment claims for religious employers, did not apply to a teacher’s Americans with Disabilities Act claim. Biel was a fifth grade teacher at St. James School, a Catholic school, who claimed that the non-renewal of her employment contract after she requested a leave of absence to undergo breast cancer treatment was in violation of the ADA. The school moved for summary judgment on the basis that the “ministerial exception,” which precludes application of employment discrimination laws to personnel decisions of religious institutions barred her claim. The employer prevailed at the District Court. The Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded concluding that Biel’s position with St. James School reflected a limited role in religious instruction and the exception did not apply. The court analyzed the four-factor test set forth in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171 (2012), and determined that Biel’s position as a lay teacher at a religious school where she taught religion as one of her many subjects to the fifth grade class was insufficient to establish the applicability of the ministerial exception. The court emphasized that although Biel taught religion in the classroom, this was only one factor of the four-factor test that would implicate the “ministerial exception.” Simply holding the position of a school employee who teaches religion is not sufficient to invoke the “ministerial exception” because such a rule would essentially collapse the four-factor test into one determinative factor rather than analyzing the totality of the circumstances.

In a lengthy dissent, Judge Fisher analyzed the employment contract, employee handbook, and Biel’s performance evaluation in concluding that the “ministerial exception” applied. The dissent emphasized that Biel’s position as a teacher at a Catholic school whose contract required a commitment to developing the faith community and a handbook that explained religious development as a goal of the staff showed, under the totality of the circumstances, that the “ministerial exception” applied. Judge Fisher also rejected Biel’s subjective opinions as to the non-religious aspects of her job as insufficient to overcome the application of the “ministerial exception.”

Biel provides guidance for understanding how California courts will likely apply the four-factor Hosanna–Tabor test to employment discrimination claims brought by employees of religious organizations. Employers should evaluate the job duties and documents of the particular employee before raising the “ministerial exception” defense to any employment discrimination claim. Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that the Biel decision is limited to the application of the “ministerial exception” and a religious institution can always file a motion for summary judgment establishing that the employment decision was based on legitimate non-discriminatory reasons, such as pedagogical and classroom management concerns under the facts of the Biel case, rather than any alleged violation of the federal employment discrimination laws.

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