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The Ministerial Exception to the Labor Code May Not Always Apply to Religious Institutions

The Court of Appeal - Second District - has ruled that there are circumstances where the ministerial exception to the California Labor Code does not apply to certain employees at a religious institution, thereby potentially subjecting the religious institution to various provisions of the Labor Code. (See, Su v. Stephen S. Wise Temple - filed March 8, 2019, Second District, Div. Three, 2019 S.O.S. 1139. )

Su v. Stephen S. Wise Temple was brought by plaintiff and appellant Labor Commissioner Julie Su (Commissioner) on behalf of preschool teachers employed by defendant and respondent Stephen S. Wise Temple (Temple). The Commissioner alleged that the Temple violated various provisions of the Labor Code by failing to provide its preschool teachers with rest breaks, uninterrupted meal breaks, and overtime pay. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Temple, concluding the Commissioner’s claims were barred by the “ministerial exception”—a constitutional doctrine that provides a complete defense to certain employment claims brought against religious institutions by or on behalf of persons classified as ministerial employees. However, in reversing the trial court's ruling, the Court of Appeal found it compelling that although the Temple’s preschool curriculum had both secular and religious content, its teachers were not required to have any formal Jewish education, to be knowledgeable about Jewish belief and practice, or to adhere to the Temple’s theology. Further, the Temple did not refer to its teachers as “ministers” or the equivalent, nor did the teachers refer to themselves as such. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal concluded the teachers were not “ministers” for purposes of the ministerial exception.

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