Supreme Court Rules Against Fired Catholic School Teachers

The U.S. Supreme Court. (Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court on Wednesday found a doctrine that insulates religious institutions from lawsuits over their hiring and firing decisions can extend to religious schools sued by their teachers. 

“When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for a seven-justice majority. 

The cases concerned two teachers who were fired from Catholic schools and a doctrine known as the ministerial exception. First outlined by the Fourth Circuit in 1985, the doctrine generally exempts religious groups from federal anti-discrimination laws when making hiring and firing decisions. 

Though the court endorsed the ministerial exception in the 2012 case Hosanna-Tabor v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it left the question of who exactly qualifies for the carve-out relatively loose. 

Alito’s 27-page opinion does not set out a firm test for courts to follow when evaluating whether an employee falls under the ministerial exception, but holds that educating students about the faith is at the core of why religious schools of all denominations exist.

This means courts should not get involved in deciding who is best suited to provide that education, Alito wrote.

Among those to applaud the ruling was Adrian Alarcon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Catholic Schools. “We are grateful that the Supreme Court recognized faith groups must be free to make their own decisions about who should be entrusted with these essential duties,” Alarcon said in a statement through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, likewise called it “a huge win for religious schools of all faith traditions.”

“The last thing government officials should do is decide who is authorized to teach Catholicism to Catholics or Judaism to Jews,” Rassbach said. “We are glad the court has resoundingly affirmed that churches and synagogues, not government, control who teaches kids about God.”

Wednesday’s decision comes in the cases of Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Biel, who each worked for Catholic schools near Los Angeles. Morrissey-Berru sued Our Lady of Guadalupe School for age discrimination in 2016, while Biel sued St. James School after it did not renew her contract after she disclosed she had breast cancer and needed to take time off for treatment. 

The schools both say they have non-discriminatory reasons for ending their relationships with the two teachers. Our Lady of Guadalupe says Morrissey-Berru did not properly implement a new reading plan, while St. James justified Biel’s firing by pointing to poor classroom management. 

But the schools also argued their decisions to fire the teachers should be covered under the ministerial exception because both taught religion as part of their coursework, participated in prayer services and took students to Mass. 

These duties, the majority held Wednesday, put both Morrissey-Berru and Biel firmly in positions the ministerial exception was meant to cover.

Alito wrote simply relying on the title a religious organization gives to an employee can be misleading to courts because of the variation in titles across faiths. Looking at educational requirements for the position could also lead courts astray because different jobs, even if equally important to the formation of religion, require different levels of instruction.

“What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does,” Alito wrote.

Alito was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as Justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Thomas, in a concurrence joined by Gorsuch, wrote courts should as a rule defer to religious groups’ “good-faith claims” about the roles of their employees so as to keep judges out of tangled religious considerations.

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority’s holding is too deferential to religious organizations, imperiling antidiscrimination protections for thousands of teachers.

“It risks allowing employers to decide for themselves whether discrimination is actionable,” Sotomayor wrote. “Indeed, today’s decision reframes the ministerial exception as broadly as it can, without regard to the statutory exceptions tailored to protect religious practice.”

Sotomayor, whose opinion was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote the decision in Hosanna-Tabor was meant to cover employees with significant leadership positions, a much narrower proposition than the court endorsed Wednesday. The majority’s expansion of the exception calls into question whether a host of employees, including coaches, nurses and other who work for religious organizations are covered under federal antidiscrimination laws, Sotomayor wrote.

“The inherent injustice in the court’s conclusion will be impossible to ignore for long, particularly in a pluralistic society like ours,” she wrote.  

Damian Cavaleri, a partner at the firm Hoguet Newman, said the majority’s decision is a significant expansion of Hosanna-Tabor, though the majority still declined to lay out a firm test. As a result, it is likely the decision invites a flurry of future challenges that seek to more clearly define exactly who falls within the exception’s reach, Cavaleri said.

“I think there’s going to be some overreaching or at least testing around the edges of this by the religious organizations, I would assume, and I think there is going to be a substantial amount of follow-on litigation,” Cavaleri said in an interview. “I don’t know how much of that is going to bubble to the top, but I think there will be a fair amount of litigation kind of trying to further define the expansiveness of the HosannaTabor and now the Our Lady of Guadalupe decisions.”  

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney with the Menlo Park, Calif., firm O’Melveny & Myers who argued for the teachers, did not immediately return a request for comment on the ruling.

In another decision involving religious employers Wednesday, the justices upheld the Trump administration’s widening of exemptions from the Obamacare requirement that companies employing more than 50 people must include free contraception as part of their health insurance offerings. Like the ruling on Catholic schools, the decision in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania was 7-2, with Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissenting.

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