Case Page: Catholic School Goes To Court To Protect Its Religious Identity and Rights

Fighting to preserve the ministerial exception for faith-based hiring.

Case Page:
Sacred Heart Academy v. Nessel, et al. – Ministerial Exception


Sacred Heart Academy, a religious school in Michigan, was founded as a ministry to support parents who desire to provide a Christ-centered education for their children. Sacred Heart promotes a culture that is intentional in transmitting the Catholic faith and its doctrine through both teaching and practice. To fulfill its mission, Sacred Heart requires its teachers and other employees to believe, support and model the Catholic faith and to avoid all beliefs and practices that are inconsistent with the moral teachings of the Church. The integration of the Catholic faith and community in all areas of life and learning is foundational to Sacred Heart’s mission.

Sacred Heart’s ability to hire employees whose beliefs align with its mission is dependent on the ministerial exception to employment anti-discrimination laws. The ministerial exception allows a religious employer to select those employees whose beliefs align with the ministry’s beliefs and who seek to act consistent with those beliefs.

Unfortunately, Michigan sought to eliminate the ministerial exception for religious entities who require employees to believe and live consistent with their religious beliefs about sexuality.  If Sacred Heart is barred from hiring teachers who will teach and model the beliefs that are core to its existence, the ministry cannot carry out its religious mission.

Michigan seeks to use laws, which prohibit discrimination against an individual based on sex, sexual orientation and gender-identity, to prevent Sacred Heart from hiring teachers and other employees who agree with, and seek to live consistent with, its religious values on sexuality and marriage.  The laws would also force Sacred Heart and other religious entities to abandon using sex-based pronouns and instead force them to adopt the language of gender ideology and prescribe cross-sex hormones, all of which are contrary to Sacred Heart’s Biblical beliefs on sexuality.  Enforcement of these laws subjects would-be violators to severe penalties.

By depriving Sacred Heart Academy of its ability to select and maintain employees who share the school’s religious beliefs, Michigan’s laws are fatal to the school’s ability to fulfill its religious mission. Unless the Court steps in to provide meaningful First Amendment protection, Michigan will succeed in preventing religious schools from hiring those who share their religious beliefs. The end result of laws like those in Michigan is clear—religious organizations will be forced to choose between their religious mission and continuing to operate.


The District Court for the Western District of Michigan ruled in favor of the State of Michigan, failing to uphold Sacred Heart Academy’s rights as a religious employer.  On August 23, 2023, Alliance Defending Freedom, representing Sacred Heart and several parents of Sacred Heart students, filed an appeal with the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. 

Our Role in the Case

The Independence Law Center filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Association of Classical Christian School, the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, the Association for Biblical Higher Education and the Wagner Faith & Freedom Center at Spring Arbor University, in support of Sacred Heart Academy.  Our brief stresses the importance of the ministerial exception in preserving a religious school’s identity and ability to hire teachers whose beliefs and actions align with the teachings of the school.