Employment laws provide workers with important protections, such as minimum and overtime wages, the right to be free from harassment or discrimination, and workers’ compensation. In certain situations, these laws conflict with The United States Constitution’s prohibition against governmental interference with the free exercise of religion. Specifically, the “ministerial exception” exempts individuals that are classified as “ministers” from various employment laws.
In Su v. Temple, 2nd Appellate Dist., Case No. B275426 (filed March 8, 2019) (“Su”), an appellate court analyzed whether the ministerial exception exempted preschool teachers, employed by a Jewish synagogue, from wage and hour laws.
Facts of the Case
In Su, the Plaintiff was a preschool teacher employed by defendant, Stephen S. Wise Temple (“Temple”). The Temple is a Reform Jewish synagogue that operated an on-site preschool and employed approximately 40 preschool teachers.
The Temple’s preschool program contained both secular and religious components. For the secular component, preschool teachers spent time engaging students in activities, such as games, books, science, and the promotion of reading, writing, and math readiness. Teachers also developed students’ social skills, assisted with toilet use, and supervised meals and snacks.
The religious component introduced students to Jewish life, religious ritual, and Judaic observance. The preschool teachers taught religious concepts, celebrated Jewish holidays, observed weekly Shabbat, and introduced students to Jewish values. The preschool’s purpose was to create a positive sense of Jewish identity and develop favorable attitudes towards Judaism.
The teachers were not required to follow the Temple’s philosophy or practice the Jewish faith. Furthermore, the teachers were not required to have theological training, be educated about Judaism, or be proficient in Hebrew. Last, the teachers were not ordained as religious leaders and did not hold themselves out as ministers of the faith.
The Temple did not require the preschool teachers to undergo theological study. Any guidance related to the practice of Judaism was provided by the Temple’s rabbis or administrators trained in Jewish education. The Temple provided the teachers with reading materials that included explanations of Jewish holidays, symbols, and Hebrew vocabulary.
In September 2013, the California Labor Commissioner brought an action on behalf of the preschool teachers against the Temple for various wage and hour violations, including failure to provide meal and rest breaks, and failure to pay overtime. The Temple filed a motion for summary judgment and asserted that the teachers were exempt from wage and hour laws due to the “ministerial exception” articulated by the United States Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical v. E.E.O.C. (2012) 565 U.S. 171 (“Hosanna-Tabor”).
The trial court granted summary judgment and concluded that the preschool teachers were ministers under the ministerial exception. It reasoned that the exception is not limited to heads of religious congregations because prior cases recognized that teachers could serve ministerial functions. The Labor Commissioner appealed the trial court’s ruling.
Appellate Court’s Ruling
On appeal, the Second District Court of Appeal analyzed the preschool teachers’ circumstances under the Hosanna-Tabor factors and held that the teachers were not ministers.
To explain its ruling, the appellate court described the purpose of the ministerial exception. In Hosanna-Tabor the defendant, a church, fired a teacher who threatened to initiate a lawsuit for disability discrimination. The church claimed that the teacher was not suitable for carrying out its message, because her threat of legal action violated a core belief that disputes should be resolved internally. After her termination, the teacher filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). This led to the EEOC suing the church for employment discrimination.
As a defense, the church argued that a law forcing a religious group to retain an unwanted messenger of the faith is governmental interference with the free exercise of religion. The United States Supreme Court held that the teacher qualified as a minister under the ministerial exception because she was someone “whose functions are essential to the independence of…[a] religious group.” Hosanna-Tabor, supra, 565 U.S. at p. 200. To reach this conclusion, the United States Supreme Court identified the following factors:
- the church identified the teacher as a minister with a role that was different from most church members;
- the teacher underwent significant religious training followed by a formal process of commissioning;
- the teacher identified herself as a minister; and
- the teacher’s duties reflected a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission. Id., supra, at pp. 191-192.
The appellate court analyzed the preschool teachers’ circumstances under the Hosanna-Tabor factors. After doing so, the appellate court reached the following conclusions. First, the Temple did not identify the preschool teachers as ministers. The teachers were not required to practice the Jewish faith, given a religious title, or recognized as spiritual leaders.
Second, the Temple did not require the preschool teachers to attend formal Jewish training or education. In contrast, the plaintiff in Hosanna-Tabor was required to take college-level courses on faith-based subjects and pass an oral examination administered by a faculty committee.
Third, none of the preschool teachers identified themselves as ministers. The plaintiff in Hosanna-Tabor held herself out as a minister by “accepting the formal call to religious service” and claiming housing allowances were only available to those employed in the exercise of the ministry.
Under the fourth factor, the appellate court found that the preschool teachers’ duties reflected a role in conveying the Temple’s message and carrying out its mission. The teachers were responsible for implementing religious curriculum, such as teaching Jewish rituals, values, leading children in prayers, celebrating Jewish holidays, and participating in weekly Shabbat services. Thus, they served a role in transmitting Jewish religion and practice to future generations.
Based on an analysis of the aforementioned factors, the appellate court held that the ministerial exception did not apply to the Temple’s preschool teachers. Therefore, the teachers were not exempt from wage and hour laws.
After reaching its conclusion, the appellate court emphasized an important point regarding the ministerial exception. The factors articulated in Hosanna-Tabor are not a rigid formula for determining the application of the ministerial exception. The analysis is based on a totality of whether an employee is sufficiently central to a religious institution’s mission to require exemption from generally applicable employment laws.
If you have questions about whether you are protected by to California or federal employment laws, please feel to contact Hunter Pyle Law at (510) 444-4400 or email@example.com.