Wednesday's decision appears to be an extension of a 2012 ruling in which the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a fourth-grade teacher at a Lutheran school hired as minister could not sue her dismissal.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Updated at 6.44 p.m. ET
The US Supreme Court has worked out an important exception to the country's fair labor laws. In a 7-2 vote, the court ruled on Wednesday that the country's civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in the workplace would not apply to most lay teachers at primary religious schools.
The case was brought up by two fifth grade teachers at parish schools in California who were fired from their jobs. Agnes Morrissey-Berru claimed age discrimination, and Kristen Biel said she was released after telling her manager that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that she would need a break. If so, it would violate the Disabled Americans Act.
Schools contested the allegations, but claimed that federal labor laws do not apply to their teachers regardless of that, as they all have to teach religion 40 minutes a day in addition to other academic subjects.
The Supreme Court has now approved.
In a letter to the majority of the seven judges, Justice Samuel Alito said that "government interference" in religious education would violate the freedom to practice religion guaranteed by the first change.
"Religious education and student education are the real reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and so the selection and supervision of the teachers that schools rely on to do this work is at the heart of their mission," wrote Alito.
According to the court, federal courts should not resolve labor disputes with teachers similar to those in these cases because the religious schools make "internal management decisions" that are "essential to the institution's religious mission."
The lower courts have long viewed ministers as exempt from the country's labor laws, but lay teachers were treated differently.
In 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a fourth-grade teacher at a Lutheran school hired as a minister could not sue her dismissal.
Wednesday's decision extended this exception to include teachers who lacked religious titles and training, and may deprive many of the approximately 149,000 religious elementary school teachers, who often teach religion among other subjects, from fair employment protection.
With almost 200,000 teachers at religious middle and high schools and schools that include both primary and secondary education, it is not entirely clear what will happen.
Michael McConnell, professor at Stanford Law School, said: "If there is a teacher who has no religious responsibility, I don't think that teacher is an exception. For example, a high school physics teacher would not be covered."
But what if the physics teacher was also a class teacher who leads the class in prayer or accompanies the class to the mass?
"It's a fair question, and it's certainly an open question about that opinion," said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia, who signed a short page with the religious schools.
Alito pointed out that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in which both dismissed teachers worked in these cases, sees all of their teachers' catechists as "responsible for the faith-building of the students in their care every day" and expects teachers to enforce Catholic values " all subject areas. "
Laycock conceded that injustice may occur in some cases based on Wednesday's statement, as teachers are fired due to prohibited criteria such as age or disability, just to avoid recourse to the court.
"We tolerate occasional abuse because the costs for judges and juries that question every personnel decision are generally much higher," said Laycock.
The decision to leave lay teachers without anti-discrimination protection has been one of three important decisions in recent weeks that have brought the law back into balance regarding the separation of church and state.
In a separate decision on Wednesday, also 7-2, the court upheld a Trump administration rule that allows employers with religious or moral objections to reject birth control for their employees. The decision is expected to remove more than 100,000 women from reporting.
And last week, in most states, the court voided state constitutional provisions that prohibited taxpayers' money from attending private religious schools.
Stanford law professor Jeffrey Fisher, who represented the dismissed teachers in court, believes that this trilogy of opinions will have significant consequences.
"The court made three major decisions in favor of its view of religious freedom, which may make it the most religious court in our country's history," he said.
For much of the 20th century, the Supreme Court's legal opinions forced a strict separation between church and state. As the court has become more conservative over the past two decades, it has increasingly given up on this thought. Now judges tend to focus their opinions on protecting the free exercise of religion and demanding that the government take greater precautions for religious activities.
"I think these opinions have a tone that religious groups are not taken seriously enough," said University of Chicago law professor David Strauss, co-editor of The Supreme Court Review, "a tone that is religious groups in today's society. " are looked down … They are not protected to the extent that other groups are protected. "
In short, the majority of the Supreme Court now sees religious groups as victims of discrimination.
Strauss added that while religious institutions have legitimate concerns, "it is no accident that the cases before the court concerned age discrimination and discrimination based on disability, as these are two areas in which employers either actually or because they do there are." Under stereotypes, think that they have economic incentives to fire employees. "
To a certain extent, judges are, of course, the product of their life experiences and their training. Six of the nine were raised Catholic, and five of them were taught at parish schools.
Alito, the court's only conservative who was not taught in religious schools, wrote the opinion on the teacher's case. Justice Clarence Thomas, a former seminarian, wrote the opinion on birth control.
In the case of the teacher, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was also taught at parish schools, wrote the dissent for herself and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and described the decision as "profoundly unfair" because "religious units may discriminate with impunity and with impunity for completely different reasons" Aus religious beliefs, "the court complained in recent statements," a perceived "discrimination against religion".
Sotomayor referred to specific provisions that Congress had included in the country's anti-discrimination laws so that churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship could select their ministers, rabbis, imams, and other religious leaders without government interference.
By extending these exceptions beyond their "historical narrowness", the majority of the judiciary has put a "constitutional broadside" to hundreds of thousands of employees who work not only at religious schools but also in religious hospitals, charities and universities.
The court did not address the potentially expansionary impact of its decision. But if Sotomayor is right, millions of religious organizations' employees could eventually be excluded from protecting the federal law on fair employment.
Thomas seemed to welcome such an opportunity. He fully endorsed the statement, but also wrote separately for himself and Justice Neil Gorsuch that courts should not question if religious organizations sincerely claim that their employees are fulfilling the organization's religious mission and are therefore "ministerial". and exempt from fair employment protection.