The Orthodox Union is a not-for-profit corporation that represents several hundred congregations across the United States and provides numerous services and programs to the Orthodox Jewish community, including kosher certification. The observance of kashruth, or keeping kosher, is one of the most important rituals in the Jewish faith. The masghichim who certify that food products were prepared in accordance with kashruth must be Sabbath-observing Jews with knowledge of Jewish law. In this case, a former mashgiach sued the Orthodox Union under California law, alleging unpaid wages. The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled that the ministerial exception of the First Amendment barred the claims and awarded summary judgment to the Orthodox Union. The case is now on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Sidley and the Yale Free Exercise Clinic represented ISKCON as amicus curiae in the appeal and filed a brief urging the Ninth Circuit to affirm the district court. The brief argued that applying the ministerial exception requires a “functional approach” to determining both whether an individual is a “minister” and whether an entity is a religious organization. A “rigid approach” that safeguards only traditional understandings of both ministers and religious organizations would be “ill-suited to the diverse composition of American religious life” and would fail to protect minority faiths, such as ISKCON, that often have unfamiliar beliefs and practices. The brief also argued that the ministerial exception applies broadly to all legal claims stemming from the relationship between a religious organization and its ministers, including wage-related claims.
The Sidley team working on behalf of ISKCON included Gordon Todd, Dan Feith, Alaric Smith, and Aaron Haviland, all in Washington, D.C. The team at the Yale Free Exercise Clinic was led by Nick Reaves.