Hosanna-Tabor is a major religious liberty case in which the Supreme Court for the first time recognized the so-called “ministerial exception.” The ministerial exception had been developed over several decades by the federal courts of appeals and state Supreme Courts as prohibiting civil authorities from interfering with matters of religious discipline, faith, internal organization, or in matters of ecclesiastical rule, custom or law, based upon the earlier decisions of the Supreme Court in Watson, Kedroff and Serbian Eastern. It derives from both Religion Clauses, and is intended to ensure that churches may exercise their religion freely and without undue interference or entanglement from government agencies or courts.
Despite its name, it has not been limited to “ministers” as that term commonly is understood, but rather extends to a variety of clergy and church officials who are responsible for carrying out a church’s religious functions. The question of how far and to whom the exception applies is a recurring question in numerous cases in the lower courts.
Hosanna-Tabor represented the Court’s first step into that issue. It involved a teacher at a Lutheran church-run school who taught primarily secular subjects, but nevertheless taught a daily religious class and accepted a religious “call,” which is a commitment to service as a religious worker. She became ill and ultimately was fired, she claimed because of her illness, although the church asserted that it was because she had violated a church rule against resorting to secular authorities to resolve disputes.
The Court declined to establish a definition for “ministers” within the exception but held that the teacher indeed was a minister. She therefore could not invoke the federal American Disabilities Act—no matter what the actual reason was for her dismissal—because, under the ministerial exception, all state requirements for how ministers are paid or supported are beyond the power of the state. The Court brushed aside the fact that she spent only 45 minutes per day performing religious tasks, cautioning, “the issue before us, however, is not one that can be resolved by a stop watch.” The Court left open future questions about who might fall into the ministerial category.