What right do religious institutions have to control who works for them in a ministerial capacity? Also, what exactly does it mean to be a “minister” in service of one of these organizations?
According to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), the answers are, respectively, “Just about unlimited” and “pretty broad.” In a 7-2 ruling, the SCOTUS essentially eliminated anti-discrimination protections for any minister employed by a church or other religious organization. They also eliminated those same protections for thousands of teachers at religious schools — who can now be fired for any reason their employer deems fit, even if that decision flies in the face of federal anti-discrimination laws.
It may make sense that a church can hire and fire its ministers at will. After all, you can grasp the idea that a church that preaches against premarital sex and adultery wouldn’t want a minister who fathered children with several mistresses. You may also sympathize with a church that wants to get rid of a minister that’s gotten too old and is now out-of-touch with a younger generation — even if that seems ageist and discriminatory.
However, the new ruling applies to all religious organizations — including schools run by churches. Furthermore, the definition of what makes someone a “minister” is so broad that it can apply to pretty much anyone working in that kind of school.
What does that mean? Well, it means that if a Catholic school or another religious-based institution wants to fire a teacher for being Jewish, black, gay, transgender, a single parent, over 40 or for any other reason, they can probably do it so long as that teacher is required to deliver a few minutes of religious instruction per week. Do you work as a janitor in that kind of school and occasionally lead a prayer circle with your peers? You may be considered a minister and subject to the same lack of protections.
Protecting your rights as an employee is hard — and this new ruling makes it much harder for some. If you’re concerned about the possibility of workplace discrimination, make sure you fully understand your options moving forward.