Matthew Franck on Hosanna-Tabor and Ministerial Exemptions
Date: April 28th, 2013

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Can a elementary school teacher at a private religious school be relieved of her duties because of difficulties with a diagnosed disability? Does such an incident apply under the “ministerial exemption” under the rules put forth by the Equal Employment & Opportunity Commission?  These were the issues at stake in the recently decided Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v EEOC (decided January 2012).  While seemingly a minor case in the eyes of the general public, the surprising decision handed down by the nine SCOTUS justices will likely have a wide-reaching impact on religious liberty issues.  Prof. Matthew Franck, director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion & the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, helps us understand the details and broad scope of this historic decision.  We begin by outlining the initial complaint in the case — how Cheryl Perich, a grade school instructor with numerous duties and a person designated as a “called teacher” (an important detail in the case), was not rehired after taking a leave of absence due to issues with narcolepsy.  Matt explains how the conflict generated first made its way into a district court in Michigan and then proceeded up the chain of the legal system to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.  The initial district court decision was to dismiss Mr. Perich’s complaint, but the 6th Circuit judges reversed this ruling arguing that she had been discriminated against.  Prof. Franck explains how the legal process generally works and how it related to this case, and he further provides information about the “ministerial exemption” clause to most labor regulations.  The “ministerial exemption” becomes the fulcrum point on which this case balanced and, in theory, allows for religious institutions to gain exceptions from certain anti-discrimination labor laws if the matter of discrimination impinges upon religious rights of conscience and the ability of a religious group to carry out its mission.  Matt provides several examples of how this exemption would work in practice and notes that a legal test of this exemption has never made its way up to the Supreme Court until Hosanna-Tabor v EEOC.  For the most part, the legal system has been fairly liberal in granting these exemptions.  We then cover why the 6th Circuit Court reversed the lower court’s decision, with the explanation hinging upon a decision of how much time Ms. Perich spent on ministerial (religious) duties relative to other activities, such as teaching art.  It is at this point that Tony reveals he may have eaten paste as a kid.  Prof. Franck then takes us through the procedures on how this case moved to the SCOTUS and answers Tony’s question, “How did Hosanna-Tabor pay for the legal fees?”  He reveals that a case of this magnitude often draws interested parties along the way, and this test of “ministerial exemption” drew the attention of groups like The Beckett Fund, which played an instrumental role in arguing the case.  We then look at arguments on both sides of the case, with Matt positing that the Solicitor General’s lawyers (i.e., the government’s litigation team) may have made a significant error in its legal arguments.  We also discuss how the “chattering classes” were making prognostications about this case and whether or not they thought it would be a close decision and in which direction the decision would fall.  Surprisingly, we learn, the decision was a unamimous 9-0 victory for Hosanna-Tabor.  Prof. Franck finishes the interview with what the implications of this case on the general issue of religious freedom as well as specific cases such as the legal rights of private businesses and volunteer organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America.  Recorded: April 23, 2013.


 Prof. Matthew Franck’s bio at the Witherspoon Institute.

Against the Imperial Judiciary: The Supreme Court versus the Soverignty of the People, by Matthew J. Franck.

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v EEOC, et al. Suprme Court case.


Phillip Muñoz on Catholic Bishops, Religious Liberty, and Health Care Mandates.

Gary Friesen on Christian Reconciliation Services

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