April 6, 2022

What Is the Ministerial Exception?

By
Neal Hardin
Legal

A mission statement is central to the identity of all organizations. And to advance that mission, institutions need people who align with their core values and actively carry them out.

This is especially true for a ministry because what it believes is at the core of everything it does. And if its mission includes teaching and spreading those beliefs, then it is critical that the ministry—rather than the government—decides who performs this vital function.

This is why our courts have recognized the principle of the “ministerial exception.”

What is the ministerial exception, and who qualifies for it?

The ministerial exception allows religious organizations to make employment decisions regarding ministers without government interference.

In Hosanna-Tabor, the U.S. Supreme Court stated, “The authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful – a matter ‘strictly ecclesiastical’ – is the church’s alone.” This means that when an employment position at any faith-based ministry is ministerial, religious organizations have total freedom to make employment decisions.

In 2020, the Supreme Court further clarified the ministerial exception in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru. In a 7-2 opinion, the Court ruled that a religious organization’s ministers (in this case, teachers at a religious school) need not necessarily have a formal title of “minister” or have theological training to fall under the ministerial exception. Instead, any definition of “minister” should ultimately be based on “what an employee does.” Meaning the religious function of employees should be the most important consideration as to whether they fall under the ministerial exception.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court has now twice upheld the ministerial exception as a fundamental piece of the First Amendment and essential to the free exercise of religion. Everyone benefits when the government is not interfering in the hiring decisions of a religious organization when it selects who teaches its faith, leads its ministry, or conducts worship or other important ceremonies.

Take Action

One way to improve your ministry’s legal protections is by clearly communicating the ministerial responsibilities of your employees through well-crafted job descriptions.

Members of ADF Ministry Alliance have access to sample job descriptions for various positions that clearly communicate the position’s ministerial responsibilities.

ADF Ministry Alliance is an affordable legal membership program that provides direct access to expert religious freedom attorneys, so you can get back to focusing on what matters most: serving people and sharing the Gospel.

ADF Ministry Alliance members experience:

✔ Robust Review: We help ensure your ministry has the best protections possible with a comprehensive legal review of your ministry’s governing documents so that you’re better prepared for religious freedom threats.

✔ Timely and Accurate Updates: Stay ahead of a changing legal landscape with easy access to legal guides, webinars, videos, and more on important religious freedom issues and court cases that may impact your ministry.

Peace of Mind: With nearly 30 years of experience advocating for religious freedom in the courtroom, 64 victories at the U.S. Supreme Court, and an 80%- win rate overall, ADF wants to serve you as we seek to keep the doors open for the Gospel.

✔ The Power of the Alliance: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Link arms with more than 3,300 like-minded churches and ministries around the country to defend religious freedom now and for future generations.

Are you ready to join the alliance? Click here to get started.

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