Reprise of the Hosanna-Tabor Facts and Principles

Although it doesn’t have much independent value as a precedent, a recent case is an eerie factual copycat of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, an employment law case that applied the constitutional ministerial exception doctrine. Herzog v. St. Peter Lutheran, an August 2012 memorandum opinion out of the federal Northern District of Illinois, faithfully applies the Hosanna-Tabor principles to a similar set of facts.

St. Peter, a Lutheran church and parochial school, employed Herzog as a called teacher. She taught both religion and secular subjects. Based on a reduction in force, she was eventually terminated.

Herzog then filed a complaint alleging employment discrimination based on age, sex, and marital status. St. Peter filed a motion to dismiss, which was converted to a motion to summary judgment (this happens when the trial court considers additional documents beyond the initial complaint and answer).

The trial court’s decision was based on the ministerial exception. This doctrine is grounded in the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the U.S. Constitution. It precludes claims of employment discrimination against a religious institution by its ministers. A church may select those who will personify its beliefs, and may determine who will minister to the faithful. Depriving the church of control violates the Free Exercise clause, and allowing the state to intrude in these decisions violates the Establishment clause. The analysis in this case centered around whether Herzog was a minister—and thus subject to the ministerial exception.

Numerous similarities existed between Herzog and Perich, the teacher in Hosanna-Tabor, including that they were both called Lutheran teachers who were commissioned as ministers of their churches, and who took advantage of that fact (such as by getting a housing allowance). After carefully considering these similarities, the court concluded that Herzog was also a minister, and the ministerial exception applied. It therefore dismissed the case.

As a trial court case, this holding is not precedential, but it is a useful example of the ministerial exception analysis in the wake of Hosanna-Tabor.

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