Thursday, February 15, 2018

Grussgott v. Milwaukee Jewish Day School: When does the ministerial exception apply?

In Grussgott v. Milwaukee Jewish Day School, No. 17-2332 (Feb. 13, 2018), the Seventh Circuit held that Miriam Grussgott's claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act was barred by the ministerial exception. This exception is grounded in the religion clauses of the First Amendment and recognizes that interference with a religious institution's selection of its "ministers" violates the Constitution. 

Rather than apply a formalistic test, the court stated that it was necessary to look at the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the exception applies. The court noted that Grussgott was expected to integrate religious teaching into her lessons and that the former principal cited Grussgott's significant religious teaching experience in the decision to hire her. Moreover, Grussgott taught students about Jewish holidays, prayer, and weekly Torah readings. 

Significantly, the court deferred to the defendant's view of whether Grussgott's duties were religious in nature. Although Grussgott may have believed that she was approaching her duties from a cultural or historical, rather than religious, perspective, her views did not affect whether the school genuinely viewed her duties as religious. As the court explained: "[T]he purpose of the ministerial exception is to allow religious employers the freedom to hire and fire those with the ability to shape the practice of their faith. Thus, it is the school's expectation -- that Grussgott would convey religious teachings to her students -- that matters."

This blog reflects the views solely of its author. It is not intended, and should not be regarded, as legal advice on how to analyze any particular set of facts.