Another religious-school teacher loses to ministerial exception

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A former elementary school teacher at a religious school has lost her employment-discrimination claim because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on the “ministerial exception.”

Janet Herzog worked as a teacher at St. Peter Lutheran School in Schaumburg, Ill., from 1987 to 2009. Originally a lay teacher, she became a “called” or religious teacher in 1988 after completing religious studies at Concordia College. Her duties consisted mainly of teaching secular subjects — spelling, reading, English, social studies and science — but she also taught religion classes four days a week.

In 2009, the school principal informed her that she was fired owing to budget constraints after a vote by the Voters Assembly of the Congregation of the Church. Herzog filed a federal lawsuit against St. Peter Lutheran Church and St. Peter Lutheran School, contending that she was the victim of sex and age discrimination.

The defendants countered that the ministerial exception barred Herzog’s claims. Under the ministerial exception, ministers cannot bring employment-discrimination claims against religious institutions because churches and other houses of worship need autonomy to make religious-based decisions free from state interference.

In support of their position, the defendants cited this year’s U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, in which the high court ruled that the ministerial exception required the dismissal of a fourth-grade teacher at a religious school. The justices wrote: “When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.”

U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Illinois Charles P. Kocoras ruled that the Hosanna-Tabor situation was “sufficiently similar” to Herzog’s case in his Aug. 1 opinion in Herzog v. St. Peter Lutheran Church. Both plaintiffs in Hosanna-Tabor and Herzog were called teachers, both received theological training followed by formal commissioning, both held themselves out as ministers of the church and both taught religion classes.

Herzog tried to distinguish between the Supreme Court case and hers by saying that she was fired for economic reasons, whereas the teacher in Hosanna-Tabor was let go for religious reasons. The district court found this argument unpersuasive, noting that “the Supreme Court explicitly stated that the reasons underlying a church’s employment decisions are wholly immaterial to determining whether the ministerial exception applies in the first instance.”

Herzog also argued that she performed mainly secular duties — an argument that the teacher in Hosanna-Tabor made, as well, to no avail.

“Herzog has failed to sufficiently distinguish her case from Hosanna-Tabor,” Kocoras concluded. “The marked similarities between these two cases establish that the ministerial exception is applicable to Herzog’s claims as a matter of law.”

Related:

Justices: Religious church workers can’t sue for discrimination

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