Politics

Supreme Court shields religious schools from discrimination suits brought by teachers

Key Points
  • The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled 7-2 in favor of two religious schools that argued they should not have to face employment discrimination lawsuits brought by former teachers. 
  • The case concerned the "ministerial exception" to employment discrimination laws that protects religious employers from certain lawsuits brought against them by employees. 
A man walks past the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, June 25, 2020.
Al Drago | Reuters

The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 on Wednesday in favor of two religious schools that argued they should not have to face employment discrimination lawsuits brought by former teachers. 

The case concerned the "ministerial exception" to employment discrimination laws that protects religious employers from certain lawsuits brought by employees. It was brought by two Catholic schools in California that were hit with discrimination lawsuits by teachers whose employment was terminated.

"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 court. 

"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," he wrote.

Alito's opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. 

The schools argued that the ministerial exception prevented them from facing those lawsuits, but the teachers countered that they should not qualify as ministers under the 2012 Supreme Court precedent that established the rule.

In that case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, the Supreme Court outlined four factors for lower courts to consider when weighing whether an employee qualified as a minister. 

Those factors included a formal religious title, whether the title reflected ministerial training, whether the employee presented herself as a minister, and whether the employee's responsibilities include "important religious functions."

Panels of the 9th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the teachers, allowing them to move forward with their lawsuits. The appeals court judges reasoned that, while the teachers' work did involve teaching religion, they did not meet all of the criteria required for the exception to apply to them. 

The schools brought the cases to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to reverse the lower court decisions.

"The ministerial exception is a fundamental part of the architecture of church-state relations in this country," wrote Eric Rassbach, a lawyer at the nonprofit Becket, in a filing submitted on behalf of one of the schools. "The Ninth Circuit's aberrant rulings have severely weakened this critical constitutional protection across a wide swath of the nation."

Alito wrote that in the  Hosanna-Tabor case, the top court had not created a "rigid formula" for determining when an employee qualified under the ministerial exception. Instead, the opinion had "identified circumstances that we found relevant in that case." 

Sotomayor wrote in a dissention opinion joined by Ginsburg that the majority's "simplistic approach has no basis in law and strips thousands of schoolteachers of their legal protections."

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"Pause, for a moment, on the Court's conclusion: Even if the teachers were not Catholic, and even if they were forbidden to participate in the church's sacramental worship, they would nonetheless be 'ministers' of the Catholic faith simply because of their supervisory role over students in a religious school," Sotomayor wrote. "That stretches the law and logic past their breaking points."

Eric Rassbach, who defended the schools before the top court, said in a statement that "today is 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," said Rassbach, an attorney at the nonprofit religious freedom group Becket. "We are glad the Court has resoundingly reaffirmed that churches and synagogues, not government, control who teaches kids about God."

An attorney for the teachers did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The cases are Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Agnes Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267, and St. James School v. Darryl Biel, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Kristen Biel, No. 19-348. 

In a separate case decided on Wednesday, the top court ruled 7-2 in favor of the Trump administration's bid to allow employers with sincere moral or religious objections to deny employees access to free contraceptive coverage.