US Supreme Court rules religious schools immune from most discrimination suits

The 7-2 ruling expands the principle of 'ministerial exception' barring employees from suing religious institutions

Griffin Connolly
Washington
Wednesday 08 July 2020 16:29
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Teachers at private schools are not protected by anti-discrimination laws if their duties include religious instruction, the US Supreme Court has ruled, the latest example of the high court siding with religious institutions.

The 7-2 decision on Wednesday was the result of two separate discrimination cases brought by ex-teachers at Catholic schools in Southern California against their former employers. Liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were the only two dissenters.

It effectively expands the definition of “ministerial exception," a legal principle based on First Amendment protections that bars ministers at religious organisations from suing their employers.

The Supreme Court coined that principle after a unanimous 2012 decision to safeguard religious institutions from governments interfering with decisions about whom they could hire and fire to teach their respective beliefs.

“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in 2012. “But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission."

The Supreme Court's ruling on Wednesday means anyone who performs religious instruction or offers religious guidance — even if they do not solely teach religion courses — would be considered a minister, and thus uncovered by anti-discrimination laws.

"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," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.

"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," Mr Alito wrote.

The plaintiffs in each case sued their former schools under separate anti-discrimination laws.

Kristen Biel, who taught religion among several other subjects at St James School in Torrance, California, sued the school under the Americans with Disabilities Act when her contract was not renewed after she informed administrators she would need time off to receive breast cancer treatment.

“She was devastated,” her husband, Darryl Biel, told The Associated Press in March. “She came in the house just bawling uncontrollably.”

Ms Biel died last year, but her husband picked up her case.

The other plaintiff, Agnes Morrissey-Berru, sued her school for age discrimination when her contract was not renewed.

The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals previously ruled in both cases that the former employees were not exempt from legal action via the ministerial exception.

“Morrissey-Berru’s formal title of ‘teacher’ was secular,” a three-judge panel from that court wrote last April.

“Aside from taking a single course on the history of the Catholic church, Morrissey-Berru did not have any religious credential, training or ministerial background. Morrissey-Berru also did not hold herself out to the public as a religious leader or minister,” the court wrote.

“She committed to incorporate Catholic values and teachings into her curriculum, as evidenced by several of the employment agreements she signed, led her students in daily prayer, was in charge of liturgy planning for a monthly Mass, and directed and produced a performance by her students during the school’s Easter celebration every year. ... However, an employee’s duties alone are not dispositive,” it wrote.

Progressive groups have panned Wednesday's decision as an erosion of millions of workers' rights and protections.

"Nobody deserves to be discriminated against at their workplace. Today’s ruling means religious institutions who wish to fire or refuse to hire school teachers or other staff based on age, race, sexual orientation, or other discriminatory factors now have legal cover for doing so," said Maggie Siddiqi, director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

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