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.

Justice Alito began by observing that the First Amendment bars the government from interfering in the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide issues relating to their faith and doctrine. Closely related to that right, Alito reasoned, is the idea that religious institutions should be able to make their own decisions about how they are run, including “the selection of the individuals who play certain key roles.” To determine whether the ministerial exception applies, Alito wrote, “a variety of factors may be important.” Whether a religious institution calls an employee a “minister” is not, standing alone, dispositive, particularly because some faiths don’t use that title or have formal organizational hierarchies. Similarly, academic training may be important, but the absence of formal theological training is not necessarily a deal-breaker. “What matters, at bottom,” Alito stressed, “is what an employee does.”

Justice Alito found there was “abundant” evidence that both women “performed vital religious duties.” As teachers, Alito noted, “they were the members of the school staff who were entrusted most directly with the responsibility of educating their students in the faith”; “they were also expected to guide their students, by word and deed, toward the goal of living their lives in accordance with the faith.” Moreover, Alito added, the Catholic schools in this case regarded the teachers “as playing a vital part in carrying out the mission of the church.” The schools’ view counts, Alito reasoned, because judges in a country as religiously diverse as the United States “cannot be expected to have a complete understanding and appreciation of the role played by every person who performs a particular role in every religious tradition.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored a dissent joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Sotomayor lamented that, as a result of the Court’s decision today, the teachers could be “fired for any reason,” even though they “taught primarily secular subjects, lacked substantial religious titles and training, and were not even required to be Catholic.” Sotomayor also warned about the broader implications of today’s ruling, suggesting that the decision could extend to “countless coaches, camp counselors, nurses, social-service workers, in-house lawyers, media-relations personnel, and many others who work for religious institutions.”

Stanford law professor Jeffrey L. Fisher, who argued the case on behalf of Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Biel, said he believed the decision would remove protection for about half of the 300,000 lay teachers in religious schools — “those who teach a general curriculum in elementary schools and those who teach religion in middle or high schools. It remains to be seen whether the court will declare employment discrimination laws unconstitutional as applied to the other half who teach only secular subjects.”

Although yet to be tested in court, the decision in this case will likely also apply to claims filed under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). In Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940), the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment’s federal protection of religious free exercise applies to state law via the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Because this ruling was decided under a First Amendment framework, it applies to both state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

If you believe you have the victim of discriminatory practices, immediately call the attorneys at Mashel Law at (732) 536-6161 for help or fill out the contact form on this page for help Mashel Law located in Marlboro, New Jersey, is dedicated exclusively to protecting the rights of employees.

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