For the first time, the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether and to what extent the First Amendment requires a "ministerial exception" to the federal employment-discrimination laws. A teacher at a religious school filed a lawsuit alleging that she was fired after asserting her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. A federal trial court in Michigan dismissed her lawsuit, holding that it was barred by the ministerial exception, a judge-made doctrine that has been applied to bar all employment-discrimination lawsuits against religious entities by employees with religious functions. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reinstated her lawsuit, concluding that she was not a ministerial employee because she taught primarily secular subjects. The Supreme Court then agreed to hear the religious school's appeal.
In August 2011, we filed an amicus brief in support of the employee and her co-plaintiff, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Unlike the plaintiffs, we agreed that the First Amendment does require that a ministerial exception protect religious bodies from discrimination lawsuits when the employment decision at issue resulted from the religious organization's genuinely-held religious beliefs. But unlike the defendant and the lower courts, we argued that the ministerial exception should not apply when motivated by purely secular animus or retaliation unrelated to religion. Application of the ministerial exception to discrimination not motivated by religion, we argued, would needlessly prevent enforcement of important federal anti-discrimination statutes yet provide no corresponding benefit to religious liberty.
On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision reversing the Court of Appeals and dismissing the lawsuit. The Court held that (1) the First Amendment's Religion Clauses create a ministerial exception to the federal anti-discrimination laws, (2) the exception applies whether or not the employment decision was actually motivated by religion, and (3) the plaintiff in this case was a "minister" within the meaning of the exception because, among other factors, her position included religious duties and required religious training.