By: Lía Fiol-Matta, Esq. and Ty Hyderally, Esq.
In a 7-2 opinion reversing the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in favor of two lay teachers who sued their employers for age and disability discrimination, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) concluded on July 8, 2020, that the teachers were “ministers” and, therefore, the Catholic elementary schools they worked for were exempt from federal antidiscrimination laws. This is pursuant to what is known as the “ministerial exception”, which shields religious schools from legal action in discrimination matters. Hosanna–Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012). In Hosanna-Tabor, SCOTUS unanimously ruled that federal discrimination laws do not apply to religious organizations’ selection of religious leaders. In an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court concluded that “the Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own”.
The July 8, 2020 decision in companion cases Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru (No. 19–267) and St. James School v. Biel, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Biel (No. 19–348) followed the precedent of Hosanna-Tabor in concluding that the teacher-plaintiffs were “ministers” and not protected against discrimination by their Catholic schools.
Kristen Biel, taught fifth grade at a Catholic school in California, when she told her principal she had breast cancer and would need time off for surgery and chemotherapy. A few weeks later, the principal told Biel she could not return the following fall. The principal criticized Biel for having a noisy classroom and also said it would not be fair to the children to have two teachers that term, when Biel took time off to recover. Biel filed a federal lawsuit for disability discrimination stemming from her cancer diagnosis. She died last summer, shortly after the Ninth Circuit allowed her suit to proceed.
Agnes Morrissey-Berru taught fifth and sixth-graders at her school in California. She was in her 60s when a new principal first demoted her to part-time status despite her longevity on the job, followed by refusing to renew her contract. Morrissey-Berru sued her employer alleging she was a victim of age discrimination. Both plaintiffs initially lost before federal district judges, but won before the Ninth Circuit. The Court ruled that because the two teachers did not have special religious training and were not viewed as religious leaders at school, they were not covered by the “ministerial exception”.
SCOTUS, shockingly (!!), disagreed with the Ninth Circuit, and reversed the Court’s Circuit court ruling. In an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court ruled that “Morrissey-Berru and Biel qualify for the exception recognized in Hosanna-Tabor. There is abundant record evidence that they both performed vital religious duties, such as educating their students in the Catholic faith and guiding their students to live their lives in accordance with that faith.” Justice Alito ruled in such a fashion despite the fact that out of all of Biel’s classroom duties, Biel only thought a religion assignment for 30-40 minutes a day for four days a week.
The ministerial exception holds that courts should not interfere with a church or other religious body’s decision on whether to hire or retain a minister, priest, rabbi or other spiritual leader. With this new ruling, other employees of religious organizations, such as teachers, coaches, clerical personnel, camp counselors, and others may be deemed ‘ministers”, even when their employers do not ordain them to any ministerial status, and even if the employees do not consider themselves ministers. The ruling applies to all kinds of religious organizations, such as church-run hospitals, colleges, charities and child-care centers.
With respect to religious employers, lawmakers recognized a limited exception for churches and other “primarily religious” employers, that may prefer to employ individuals of their own faith. Now, these institutions may not have to obey anti-discrimination laws based on race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, age or disability, which can include diseases like cancer. If religious organizations violate these discrimination laws, and the organization properly characterizes the employee as a minister, that organization may be free to discriminate with impunity.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented because the majority’s “simplistic approach has no basis in law and strips thousands of school-teachers of their legal protections.” In past cases, Sotomayor and Ginsburg explained, had concluded, “Lay faculty, even those who teach religion at church-affiliated schools, are not ‘ministers.’” Sotomayor made an especially noteworthy point about the scope of the majority’s opinion: “Other sources tally over a hundred thousand secular teachers whose rights are at risk. … And that says nothing of the rights of countless coaches, camp counselors, nurses, social-service workers, in-house lawyers, media-relations personnel, and many others who work for religious institutions. All these employees could be subject to discrimination for reasons completely irrelevant to their employers’ religious tenets.”
This is a very disappointing ruling that may have serious implications for employees at religious institutions for many years to come, until SCOTUS is reconstituted and revisits this issue in a future case!
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