On July 8, 2020, the United States Supreme Court narrowed employment protections from state and federal anti-discrimination laws for religious schoolteachers. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267, the Court held that the First Amendment’s religion clauses foreclose courts from hearing employment-discrimination claims from teachers at religious schools who have at least some role in teaching the faith.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled, in Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), that the “ministerial exception,” which bars ministers from suing churches and other religious institutions for employment discrimination, prohibited a lawsuit filed by a teacher at a Lutheran school who was also an ordained minister. By a vote of 7-2, the Court held that the exception also forecloses lawsuits by two teachers at Catholic elementary schools in southern California. Although the teachers were not ordained ministers, the schools had argued that the exception nonetheless applied because they played a key role in teaching religion to their students, and the Court – in an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito – agreed.
The decision came in a pair of cases, against parish schools in the Los Angeles area. Agnes Morrissey-Berru taught at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach for nearly two decades before she was told that her contract would not be renewed. Morrissey-Berru went to federal court, where she claimed that she had been the victim of age discrimination. The district court threw out the lawsuit, agreeing with the school that the ministerial exception applied. The second plaintiff, Kristen Biel, sued St. James School in Torrance when – not long after she disclosed that she was being treated for breast cancer – the school failed to renew her contract. Biel claimed that the school had discriminated against her because she had cancer, but the district court agreed with the school that Biel’s lawsuit was barred by the ministerial exception. The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reinstated both teachers’ lawsuits. It reasoned that the ministerial exception normally applies when an employee plays a “religious leadership” role, but that Biel and Morrissey-Berru played a more limited role, mostly “teaching religion from a book.” The schools went to the Supreme Court, which reversed.