Synagogue Teachers’ Wage Claims Not Barred by Ministerial Exception

 

By Joanne Deschenaux April 18, 2019
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Under the First Amendment's ministerial exception, religious institutions do not have to comply with certain workplace laws that would otherwise govern their relationships with their ministers. Teachers at a synagogue preschool, however, were not ministers within the meaning of the exception, and therefore a lawsuit alleging that the synagogue failed to provide the teachers with rest breaks, uninterrupted meal breaks and overtime pay, as required by California law, could go forward, the California Court of Appeal ruled.

The case was brought by the California labor commissioner on behalf of preschool teachers employed by the Stephen S. Wise Temple, a Reform Jewish synagogue. The temple's early childhood center (ECC) is an onsite preschool for children ages 5 and younger and employs about 40 teachers.

The ECC's curriculum has a secular component. Teachers spend much of the school day engaged with children in indoor and outdoor play that is intended to promote reading, writing and math readiness. Teachers also work with children on social skills, such as sharing and kindness.

The curriculum also has a religious component through which children are introduced to Jewish life, religious ritual and Judaic observance.

The trial court dismissed the lawsuit before trial, concluding that the synagogue's preschool teachers were ministers within the meaning of the ministerial exception. The court reasoned that the exception is not limited to the heads of religious congregations, and prior decisions had recognized that preschool teachers in religious schools could serve ministerial functions.

The commissioner appealed.

Teachers, Not Ministers

In examining whether the EEC teachers were ministers under the exception, the appeals court first noted that the synagogue does not portray them as ministers. They are not given religious titles, and they are not ordained or otherwise recognized as spiritual leaders. The teachers are not required to adhere to the temple's religious philosophy, be temple members, or even be Jewish. Some ECC teachers are hired without any knowledge of Jewish religion or practice.

Furthermore, there was no evidence that any of the ECC's teachers portrayed  themselves as ministers, the court noted. Instead, they described themselves as teachers and did not claim any tax benefits available only to ministers.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What is a ministerial exception under Title VII?]

Although the ECC's teachers are responsible for some religious instruction, the ministerial exception doesn't apply based on that alone, the court said.

The appellate court reversed the trial court's dismissal of the action, ruling that the teachers were not subject to the ministerial exception, and the lawsuit could go forward.

Su v. Stephen S. Wise Temple, Calif. Ct. App., No. B275426 (March 8, 2019).

Professional Pointer: As this case shows, religious employers should not assume that the ministerial exception will prevent their nonordained employees from bringing employment-related claims to court.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md. 

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