The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

A Ministerial Exemption for the OSHA Mandate?

The 490-page rule says surprisingly little about religious liberty.


The OSHA Act has long offered an exemption for "churches":

1975.4(c)(1): Churches. Churches or religious organizations, like charitable and non-profit organizations, are considered employers under the Act where they employ one or more persons in secular activities. As a matter of enforcement policy, the performance of, or participation in, religious services (as distinguished from secular or proprietary activities whether for charitable or religion-related purposes) will be regarded as not constituting employment under the Act. Any person, while performing religious services or participating in them in any degree is not regarded as an employer or employee under the Act, notwithstanding the fact that such person may be regarded as an employer or employee for other purposes—for example, giving or receiving remuneration in connection with the performance of religious services.

As I read this rule, if a church employee is performing or participating in "religious services," he is not covered by OSHA. But when that same church employee is not performing or participating in "religious services, he is covered by OSHA. Here, OSHA anticipates something like the ministerial exception in Hosannah-Tabor.  Yet, OSHA is far more narrow than the ministerial exception. That exception applies to ministers at all times during their vocations–not only when they are performing religious services.

How would the new OSHA mandate apply to churches with more than 100 employees? I think ministers, who often do things that are not "religious services," would at some times be subject to the OSHA mandate. A vaccine is not something that can be turned on or off depending on the activity being performed. Likewise, the masking requirement would apply for certain activities that are not "religious services." Imagine a priest talking with a parishioner about matters of faith. Is that a "religious service"? Would the federal government require a mask during that time? Moreover, there are major question problems with OSHA crafting such a regime. Plus the requirement of weekly testing is a burden for ministers. Given that RFRA is at issue, and not the Free Exercise Clause, I think there will have to be some sort of ministerial exception.