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The Ministerial Exception Does Not Foreclose ADA Claims of Catholic School Teacher

On December 17, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of a Catholic school and remanded in an employment discrimination action under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Biel v. St. James Sch., No. 17-55180, 2018 WL 6597221 (9th Cir. Dec. 17, 2018).

Plaintiff Kristin Biel was fired from her fifth-grade teaching position at St. James Catholic School after she told her employer that she had breast cancer and would need to miss work to undergo chemotherapy. The district court ruled that her lawsuit against St. James under the ADA was barred by the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception” to generally applicable employment laws. Biel appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the First Amendment’s ministerial exception did not bar a teacher’s claim against the Catholic elementary school that terminated her employment.

The Ninth Circuit considered whether the school held the teacher out as a minister, whether her title reflected ministerial substance and training, whether she held herself out as a minister, and whether her job duties included important religious functions. The court held that there was no religious component to the teacher's liberal studies degree or teaching credential; the school had no religious requirements for her position; and the school did not hold her out as a minister. The court also reviewed this matter in light of the Hosanna-Tabor decision, where it pointed out that the Supreme Court expressly declined to adopt “a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister,” and instead considered “all the circumstances of [the plaintiff’s] employment.” In determining whether, under the totality of the circumstances, a ministerial exception applied, the Court considered: (i) whether the employer held the employee out as a minister, (ii) whether the employee’s title reflected ministerial substance and training, (iii) whether the employee held herself out as a minister, and (iv) whether the employee’s job duties included “important religious functions.”

The Ninth Circuit concluded that Biel did not qualify as a minister for purposes of the exception. However, the court stated that its ruling did not intend to provide carte blanche to disregard anti-discrimination laws when it comes to other employees who do not serve a leadership role in the faith. The court specifically stated that it could not read Hosanna-Tabor to exempt from federal employment law all those who intermingle religious and secular duties but who do not "preach [their employers'] beliefs, teach their faith, . . . carry out their mission . . . [and] guide [their religious organization] on its way."

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