The Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment shields religious organizations from federal anti-discrimination employment laws and also allows religious groups to define employees as ministers as they see fit.

The ruling stems from a case being fought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of a teacher who was fired from a religious school and who claimed it was an act of retaliation for her threatening to file suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The teacher, Cindy Perich, suffered from narcolepsy and hoped to find a reasonable accommodation so she could continue teaching for the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church's school. Instead, the church fired her for insubordination and failure to follow dispute resolution policies. When the EEOC filed suit on Perich's behalf, the church claimed a "ministerial exception" under the Constitution. Both the EEOC and Perich claimed that she was not a minister but solely a teacher.

In its Jan. 11 ruling on Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that religious groups are free to label employees ministers as they wish and are thus shielded from anti-discrimination employment laws.

Interestingly, in so ruling the court rejected as non-applicable its 1990 interpretation that the U.S. is free to apply "neutral and general" laws to religious groups. (In that case, the issue was the smoking of peyote by Native American religious groups.)

For the vast majority of U.S. businesses, there are no exceptions. To understand and comply with the employment laws of the land, please visit our Harassment and Discrimination section on the Personnel Concepts Web site for a variety of guides and manuals.