The U.S. Supreme Court has issued its first significant employment law decision of the year.

Decision

In a unanimous decision (Hosana-Tabor v. EEOC), the Court for the first time recognized a “ministerial exception” to discrimination laws.

At stake was whether a religious institution can discriminate in favor of employees aligned with its beliefs. In other words, can a church prefer members of its own denomination and discriminate against atheist candidates in filling a minister position?

The Court’s answer? Yes (in certain circumstances).

Factors

The Court rejected the EEOC’s “extreme position,” which sought to limit the exception to employees who perform “exclusively religious functions.”

While the Court was “reluctant to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister,” it provided a “multi-factor analysis” that looks at “all the circumstances.” Key factors include whether the employee (1) is “held out as a minister,” (2) underwent significant training, (3) was formally commissioned and (4)  performs “important religious functions.”

The Court ruled that the exception may apply even if the clear majority of an employee’s duties are non-religious: “The amount of time an employee spends on particular activities is relevant in assessing the employee’s status, but that factor cannot be considered in isolation, without regard to the nature of the religious functions performed and the other considerations.”

Reasoning

Why did the Court come down on this side of the issue? Here’s what it said: “Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.”

For more, check out these fine analyses by SCOTUS and the Connecticut Employment Law Blog.