Supreme Court Sides With Religious Schools in Employment Discrimination Suits, Citing ‘Ministerial Exception’
How do you feel about the Court's decision?
by Causes | 7.8.20
What’s the story?
- The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a 7-2 decision in a case known as Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, upholding the “ministerial exception” which protects churches & religious institutions from employment discrimination lawsuits filed by key employees who serve as ministers or in similar roles. The case was consolidated with a similar case known as St. James School v. Biel.
- The cases concerned a pair of Catholic schools which were sued by teachers claiming age & disability discrimination after their contracts weren’t renewed. The schools claimed they were protected by the ministerial exception doctrine, which was established in the landmark case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C. (2012) concerning the firing of Cheryl Perich, a minister who was fired & alleged a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In Hosanna-Tabor, the Court unanimously held that anti-discrimination laws do not apply to religious institutions’ employment relationships with ministers without defining which employees qualify as ministers.
- In hearing this pair of cases, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the teachers didn’t fall within the ministerial exception because Morrissey-Berru didn’t have the formal title of “minister,” while Biel lacked religious credentials, training, and a ministerial background.
- The Court’s decision reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision, upholding the ministerial exception and finding that the employment discrimination claims should not have been adjudicated because of the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses.
What did the justices say?
- Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Elena Kagan, Justice Neil Gorsuch, and Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It read in part:
“In the cases now before us, we consider employment discrimination claims brought by two elementary school teachers at Catholic schools whose teaching responsibilities are similar to Perich’s. Although these teachers were not given the title of “minister” and have less religious training than Perich, we hold that their cases fall within the same rule that dictated our decision in Hosanna-Tabor. The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission. Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”
- In addition to joining the majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas filed a concurring opinion that was joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch.
- Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which read in part:
“Two employers fired their employees allegedly because one had breast cancer and the other was elderly. Purporting to rely on this Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, the majority shields those employers from disability and age-discrimination claims. In the Court’s view, because the employees taught short religion modules at Catholic elementary schools, they were “ministers” of the Catholic faith and thus could be fired for any reason, whether religious or nonreligious, benign or bigoted, without legal recourse. The Court reaches this result even though the teachers taught primarily secular subjects, lacked substantial religious titles and training and were not even required to be Catholic. In foreclosing the teachers’ claims, the Court skews the facts, ignores the applicable standard of review, and collapses Hosanna-Tabor’s careful analysis into a single consideration: whether a church thinks its employees play an important religious role. Because that simplistic approach has no basis in law and strips thousands of school-teachers of their legal protections, I respectfully dissent.”
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: iStock.com / pcess609)
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