ministerial exemption, title vii, religion, first amendment, free exercise clause, establishment clause, antidiscrimination, constitutional law


This Article critiques the constitutional underpinnings of the “ministerial exemption,” which grants religious organizations immunity from discrimination suits brought by “ministerial” employees. These employees, who range from parochial schoolteachers to church music directors, cannot assert Title VII race or sex discrimination claims against their religious employers--regardless of whether or not religious belief motivated the discrimination. Lower courts and commentators assert that the right of church autonomy created by the religion clauses requires this result, but the Supreme Court has never blessed (nor rejected) it. This Article argues there is no place for the ministerial exemption under the Supreme Court's current religion clause jurisprudence. The free exercise clause neither guarantees religious organizations autonomy in their internal affairs nor shields them from neutral laws of general applicability like Title VII. And while the establishment clause forbids courts from resolving theological or spiritual disputes, this Article rejects the unexplored assumption that adjudicating a Title VII suit requires courts to evaluate a plaintiff's spiritual qualifications. The Article also briefly explores freedom of expressive association as an alternative justification for the ministerial exemption and concludes that, to the extent it applies at all, it only protects those employers whose religious doctrine requires discrimination.

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