“Ministerial Exception” That Bars Employment Discrimination Claims by Ministers Employed by Religious Institutions Also Covers Other Claims Related to the Institution’s Employment Decision

Hyman v. Rosenbaum Yeshiva of New Jersey, 474 N.J. Super. 561 (App. Div. 2023). As Judge Mitterhoff explained in her opinion for the Appellate Division today, the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution “bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.” The Supreme Court of the United States so stated in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012). In that same case, however, the Court “recognized the existence of a ‘ministerial exception,’ grounded in the First Amendment, that precludes application of [Title VII] to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.” The Court applied that exception “to an employment discrimination claim brought by an elementary school teacher against the religious school where she taught.”

The question in today’s case was whether the ministerial exception applies to claims other than employment discrimination. Plaintiff Shlomo Hyman, an ordained rabbi, taught Judaic studies to elementary school-level students at the defendant yeshiva (“RYNJ”), a status that gave him the title “rebbe.” In February 2019, RYNJ learned of allegations that plaintiff had inappropriately touched female students. Among other things, such conduct would violate halacha, the code of Jewish law by which defendant, an Orthodox Jewish institution, was governed.

RYNJ retained a major law firm to conduct an investigation of the allegations against plaintiff. The law firm interviewed numerous witnesses. In May 2019, the firm presented its findings to RYNJ. The firm concluded that “plaintiff had intentionally touched them and other girls in his classes by massaging girls’ shoulders, touching them on clothed parts of the body that he should not have touched, placing stickers on or near their chests, and creating classroom games that caused him to touch them.” After receiving the findings and consulting authorities on halacha, RYNJ terminated plaintiff’s employment because his conduct violated Orthodox Jewish standards of conduct set out in the RYNJ Staff Handbook.

RYNJ then notified parents of yeshiva students by letter about the situation, again after having consulted halachic authorities. The letter explained that RYNJ had learned of allegations, retained the law firm, and terminated plaintiff because his conduct “had been neither acceptable nor consistent with how a rebbe in our Yeshiva should interact with students.” The letter was disseminated throughout the yeshiva and in similar communities, as a result of which “plaintiff was allegedly branded as a pedophile among the Jewish community, which affected any possibility of him obtaining future employment in education.”

Plaintiff (and related plaintiffs) sued RYNJ and others for breach of contract, age discrimination, defamation, and other torts. The Law Division granted a defense motion to bifurcate discovery, limiting it at first to the ministerial exception issue, as to which the court had previously granted in part and denied in part a motion to dismiss. After discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment on all claims, based on the ministerial exception. Plaintiff admitted that he was a minister and agreed to dismiss the age discrimination claim. The Law Division granted summary judgment on all the remaining claims, applying the ministerial exception. Plaintiff alone appealed, and today the Appellate Division affirmed, employing the de novo standard of review.

Neither the Supreme Court of the United States nor the Supreme Court of New Jersey had opined on whether the ministerial exception applies beyond employment discrimination claims. Judge Mitterhoff noted, however, that Hosanna-Tabor stated “[w]e express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers. There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances if and when they arise.”

But cases in several other jurisdictions did extend the ministerial exception to claims other than employment discrimination, as Judge Mitterhoff discussed. She also noted the rationale for the exception as stated in Hosanna-Tabor: “[r]equiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs,” in violation of both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment. All that supported the panel’s decision to affirm the summary judgment for defendants.

Plaintiff contended that ruling for the defense would mean that a minister “could never bring an action against their employer for any tort because his status as a minister alone would preclude the tort claims.” He offered the example of “a parochial school bible teacher who was hit by a school bus in the school parking lot.” Judge Mitterhoff did not agree. She “conclude[d] that the ministerial exception operates to bar any tort claim provided (1) the injured party is a minister formerly employed by a religious institution and (2) the claims are related to the religious institution’s employment decision” (emphasis added). The school bus hypothetical did not satisfy the second part of that test, but plaintiff’s defamation and other claims here did.

Since this appears to be an issue of first impression in New Jersey, it might be a case ripe for Supreme Court review. We shall see.