Civil Procedure and the Ministerial Exception

By Peter J. Smith & Robert W. Tuttle

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a ministerial exception to the ordinary rules of employer liability. The Court also concluded that the exception operates as an affirmative defense rather than a jurisdictional bar. This conclusion raises quite significant questions about how courts should address the exception in the course of litigation.

This Article posits that courts should approach these procedural questions in light of the underlying justification for the ministerial exception. The exception reflects a longstanding constitutional limitation on the competence of courts to resolve “strictly and purely ecclesiastical” questions. To conclude that the exception operates as an affirmative defense does not alter this fundamental limitation on the authority of secular courts.

As a practical matter, this means that in litigation between religious institutions and their employees, courts may be required to manage discovery to resolve threshold questions about the application of the ministerial exception before permitting broader discovery. Similarly, courts should consider permitting interlocutory appeals of trial court decisions that deny motions for summary judgment based on the exception. And courts not only should conclude that religious institutions do not waive the defense by failing to raise it but also ought to raise it sua sponte when the facts indicate that the exception may apply. These departures from the ordinary treatment of affirmative defenses are necessary to respect the constitutional principles that the Court articulated in Hosanna-Tabor.