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Ministerial Exception Protects Employer From Disability Discrimination

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held that there was a “ministerial exception” to federal anti-discrimination laws.

“Under the Free Exercise Clause ‘which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments,’ and the Establishment Clause, ‘which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions,’ religious organizations are free to hire and fire their ministerial leaders without governmental interference.”

No clear test was put forth by the Court as to who falls within this exception.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals was recently faced with a challenge to the meaning of this exception. In Grussgott v. Milwaukee Jewish Day School, Inc., Miriam Grussgott taught Jewish Studies and Hebrew at a Jewish day school. She had memory impairment and cognitive issues because of a brain tumor. When a parent mocked her memory loss and limitations, Ms. Grussgott’s husband responded via her school email address, chastising the parent for being disrespectful. The school found out about it and fired Ms. Grussgott. She sued for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Before the circuit court was the question of whether Ms. Grussgott fell within the “ministerial exception.” First, the court determined that the Jewish day school qualified as a religious institution and the fact that the school was led by a non-clergy member did not alter that status. To determine whether her position was ministerial, the court looked at her formal title, the substance reflected in that title, her own use of the title, and the religious functions performed by her. Her title was “grade school teacher” and there was no evidence to suggest she held herself out in the community as an ambassador of the Jewish faith, which all cut against using the exception. However, the substance of her work pulled toward the use of the exception. She taught about Jewish holidays, prayer and the weekly Torah reading and she practiced religion with them by praying and performing some rituals. The school clearly intended her to be connected to the school’s Jewish mission and to teach its curriculum of developing Jewish knowledge and identity. Finding that the duties and functions of her position were sufficient to qualify her as part of the “ministerial exception,” her case was dismissed. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear her appeal.