Our Lady of Guadalupe was the Supreme Court’s second major decision concerning the ministerial exception. The Court made clear that the privilege was not limited to the specific criteria it had emphasized in Hosanna-Tabor, but rather extended to a broad, but still not specified, range of positions and issues.
The Court noted that application of the exception should focus on the employee’s religious functions, rather than labels or designations that may vary across faiths.
(This functional test has been applied by most federal courts of appeals and state appellate courts, which have found that positions such as choir leader, cantor, Sunday school teacher, fundraiser, public relations officer, cook for other ministers, etc., are all within the ministerial exception.)
Applying this functional analysis, the Court ruled that the two teachers who sued qualified as ministers subject to the exception. Although their titles did not include the term “minister,” they lacked formal religious training and they taught primarily secular subjects, the Court found that they both performed vital religious duties by educating their students in the Catholic faith and leading them in Catholic religious rituals. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the exception applies to any employee who performs important religious functions in carrying out the mission of the church.
The Court stated that its decision in Hosanna-Tabor rested on the church autonomy doctrine: “The Constitutional foundation for our holding was the general principle of church autonomy to which we have already referred: independence in matters of internal government. The three prior decisions on which we primarily relied [i.e., Watson, Kedroff and Milivojevich] drew on this broad principle, and none was exclusively concerned with the selection or supervision of clergy.”
Elaborating on that theme, the Court concluded: “Among other things, the Religion Clauses protect the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide matters ‘of faith and doctrine’ without government intrusion. … State interference in that sphere would obviously violate the free exercise of religion, and any attempt by government to dictate or even to influence such matters would constitute one of the central attributes of an establishment of religion. The First Amendment outlaws such intrusion.”