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Ninth Circuit Diverges on “Ministerial Exception”

A teacher fired after notifying her church employer about her breast cancer may pursue her claim said the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in opposition to a recent decision in the Seventh Circuit.
Kristen Biel was a fifth-grade teacher for St. James Catholic School. She had no training in Catholic teachings. As part of her position, she was required to teach the standard religious curriculum about 30 minutes per day, four days a week using a Catholic workbook provided by the school. Ms. Biel was also required to attend Mass with her students one time a month and be present at twice daily prayers. The school handbook stressed the school’s role in providing a Catholic education.
She notified the Church that she would need to take time off for her breast cancer treatment. Her case was dismissed on summary judgment on the theory that employment laws did not apply because of the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception.” The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case and concluded that the exception did not apply to the facts of this matter. A previous Supreme Court decision outlined the factors for the “ministerial exception.”

"The [Supreme] Court focused on four major considerations to determine if the ministerial exception applied: (1) whether the employer held the employee out as a minister, (2) whether the employee's title reflected ministerial substance and training, (3) whether the employee held herself out as a minister, and (4) whether the employee's job duties included 'important religious functions.'"

The appellate court found that the Church did not meet the first element. Her title was “Grade 5 Teacher” which did not have any ministerial function nor did the record support that she presented herself as a minister. Thus, the only element possibly met was the fourth. While there was some evidence supporting this element, it was insufficient by itself to cause the exception to apply. She may pursue her claims.