Friday, October 5, 2012

Supreme Judicial Court Applies Ministerial Exception Broadly in Temple Emanuel Decision

Teachers at supplemental religious schools in Massachusetts cannot bring workplace discrimination claims against their employers. The United States Supreme Court in it's Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC ruling recognized, for the first time, the "ministerial exception" grounded in the First Amendment, stripping the rights conferred by workplace discrimination laws from those the Court determines to be a minister.  Last month the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that part time teachers at a religious after school program qualified as ministers, in Temple Emanuel of Newton v. MCAD.  

Teacher Gaye Hilsenrath brought a discrimination complaint against Temple Emanuel's Rabbi Albert I. Gordon Religious School. Ms. Hilsenrath was not a rabbi.  Her claim of discrimination had nothing to do with religious beliefs.  She alleged age discrimination, that she was not rehired to her teaching position because she was too old. The Synagogue did not assert a sincerely held belief that teachers should retire at a certain age.  Instead, they argued that who they hire to teach at their religious school is none of the States business.  The court agreed.

Answering their own question in the affirmative, the Supreme Judicial Court stated "the fundamental question [in deciding if the ministerial exception applies] is whether it would infringe the free exercise of religion or cause excessive entanglement between the State and a religious group if a court were to order a religious group to hire or retain a religious teacher that the religious group did not want to employ, or to order damages for refusing to do so." The opinion gave no indication how far this "ministerial exception"would reach in the future.  But this decision is unlikely to be the last word on the topic.

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