The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 on Wednesday that the First Amendment religion clauses are preventing federal courts from hearing religious school teachers' claims to at least some role in teaching faith for employment discrimination.
"When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility to educate and educate students in faith, judicial intervention in disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the independence of the school in a way that does not allow the first change," Justice said Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the court at Our Lady of Guadalupe School against Morrissey-Berru (No. 19-267) and at St. James School against Biel (No. 19-348).
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in a dissent that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined that the majority have a "simple approach that has no legal basis and deprives thousands of school teachers of their legal protection".
Two Roman Catholic schools in the Los Angeles region relied on the ministerial exception to claim immunity from lawsuits against employment filed by two lay teachers.
The teachers in the two cases before the court were themselves Catholic and taught 5th grade subjects at their schools, but were also responsible for leading daily religious classes or participating in prayer services.
Agnes Morrissey-Berru started teaching at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach, California in 1999. Her contract was not renewed after the 2013/14 school year after the school claimed that she had problems maintaining order in her classroom and later meeting expectations as part of a new reading and writing program. Her headmaster asked the teacher in her mid-60s if she wanted to retire. Morrissey-Berru filed a lawsuit for age distortion under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.
Kristen Biel taught at St. James School in Torrance, California. She said she was released after telling the administrators that she had breast cancer and needed time out for surgery and chemotherapy. The headmistress informed Biel that her contract would not be extended due to problems with the administration of the classroom. Biel sued under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability at work.
Biel died last year and her claim for damages was continued by her husband James Biel.
School lawyers cited the ministerial exception to block the lawsuits early.
In its 2012 decision in the Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Hosanna-Tabor against the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Supreme Court said that the lower courts take into account factors such as the employee's formal title, the content and use of that title, and religious considerations functions that the employee has performed to determine whether the ministerial exception applies.
Alito had written a match in Hosanna-Tabor with judge Elena Kagan, suggesting that the exception should apply to positions of "significant religious importance".
On Thursday, Alito said in his opinion for the court in Our Lady of Guadalupe: "What basically counts is what an employee does. And our decision in Hosanna-Tabor included recognition that young people were in their Teaching Faith Teaching their teaching and training to live their faith are tasks that are at the heart of the mission of a private religious school. "
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Clarence Thomas, Stephen G. Breyer, Kagan, Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh joined his opinion. Thomas wrote a match, along with Gorsuch.
Sotomayor said in opposition that the majority had achieved their result "although the teachers mainly taught secular subjects, had no essential religious titles and no education and did not even have to be Catholic".
The court's decision "points to serious consequences" for more than 100,000 "secular" teachers in religious schools, she said.
"And that says nothing about the rights of countless coaches, camp counselors, nurses, social workers, internal lawyers, media workers, and many others who work for religious institutions," said Sotomayor. "All of these employees could be discriminated against for reasons that are completely irrelevant to the religious principles of their employers."