The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rules that a Jewish school teacher is not protected under anti-discrimination law because of the “Ministerial Exception."
Milwaukee Jewish Day School, a private school dedicated to providing non-Orthodox Jewish education, hired Miriam Grusgott to teach Hebrew and Jewish Studies. She taught Hebrew from an integrated Hebrew and Jewish Studies curriculum, known as Tal Am, and attended community prayer sessions. Further, she discussed Jewish values with her students, taught about prayers and Torah portions, and discussed Jewish holidays and symbolism. However, she asserted that these portions of her lessons were taught from a cultural and historical perspective.
In 2013, Grusgott received treatment for a brain tumor and ceased working during her recovery. During her recovery, she suffered memory and cognitive issues. In 2015, a parent mocked Grusgott for her memory loss. Grusgott’s husband subsequently criticized the parent by email using Grusgott’s work email address. As a result, the school terminated Grusgott.
Grusgott sued the school under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), claiming that she was terminated because of her cognitive issues resulting from her brain tumor. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the school, determining that the “Ministerial Exception” to employment discrimination laws applied to Grusgott due to her religious role as a Hebrew and Jewish Studies teacher. Grusgott appealed the district court’s decision to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Issue: Was Grusgott’s employment subject to the “Ministerial Exception” to employment discrimination laws, thus shielding the school from liability?
Holding: Yes. The court determined that, in the totality of circumstances, the substance of Grusgott’s job title and duties was one of teaching the Jewish religion to students and performing other important religious functions for the school.
Key Legal Points
The court considered two factors dispositive to the case. First, the school expected its Hebrew teachers to integrate religious teaching into their lessons, and hired Grusgott partly due to her substantial religious teaching experience. Second, Grusgott performed important religious functions such as teaching religious material and praying with her students even though she may not have thought these activities were religious or part of her formal job requirements.
The court noted potentially countervailing factors. For instance, one’s job title is not necessarily dispositive. Though Grusgott’s title was “grade school teacher” and “Hebrew teacher,” this did not prove, by itself, that she served a religious role. The Court also noted that Grusgott never held herself out in the community as an ambassador of the Jewish faith, or understood that her role would be perceived as a religious leader. These facts, however, did not suffice to overcome the other factors (noted earlier) which created the Exception.
In sum, the court ruled that the substantive duties and functions of a position outweigh formalistic factors, such as job title and how an employee holds him/herself out to the community. The importance of Grusgott’s position as a “teacher of faith” outweighed other countervailing factors.