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Opinion analysis: Court rules that Catholic elementary school teachers are “ministers,” cannot sue for employment discrimination

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that a doctrine known as 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. Today, by a vote of 7-2, the court held in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru 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.

Today’s decision came in a pair of cases, both filed by fifth-grade teachers 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 U.S. 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 today reversed.

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.” The ministerial exception, Alito explained, grew out of the idea that religious institutions should be able to both choose and, if necessary, remove a minister without government interference; otherwise, Alito observed, “a wayward minister’s preaching, teaching, and counseling could contradict the church’s tenets and lead the congregation away from the faith.”

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.”

In the United States, Alito emphasized, religious education “is vital to many faiths” – including Catholicism, Protestant churches, Judaism, Islam, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Seventh-day Adventists. And in the case of Morrissey-Berru and Biel, Alito continued, there is “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.” Although they may not have been formally designated as ministers, and they had “less formal religious training” than the teacher in the 2012 case, “their core responsibilities as teachers of religion were essentially the same.” 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.”

Alito rejected the teachers’ suggestion that allowing a ministerial exception will only work if courts have a rigid formula that they can apply to determine who qualifies for the exception. The lower courts, Alito countered, “have been applying the exception for many years without such a formula.” It is enough, Alito concluded, to say that in cases like these, in which a “school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”

Justice Clarence Thomas filed a concurring opinion that was joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch. Thomas would have gone further and ruled that if a religious organization labels an employee a minister, courts should defer to that designation.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, in an opinion that was 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 criticized the majority’s opinion, arguing that it “skews the facts, ignores the applicable standard of review, and collapses” the “careful analysis” from the court’s 2012 decision “into a single consideration: whether a church thinks its employees play an important religious role.” Such a “simplistic approach has no basis in law and strips thousands of schoolteachers of their legal protection,” Sotomayor concluded.

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.” And although the Supreme Court in its recent decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, holding that religious schools cannot be excluded from state funding for private schools, “lamented a perceived ‘discrimination against religion,’” Sotomayor alleged, “here it swings the pendulum in the extreme opposite direction, permitting religious entities to discriminate widely and with impunity for reasons wholly divorced from religious beliefs.”

The Supreme Court is expected to begin its summer recess soon, but when it returns in the fall, issues relating to religion and discrimination will be back on its docket. The justices will hear oral argument in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a challenge by several foster parents and Catholic Social Services to the city’s policy of cutting off referrals of foster children to CSS because the agency will not certify same-sex couples as foster parents.

This post was originally published at Howe on the Court.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Opinion analysis: Court rules that Catholic elementary school teachers are “ministers,” cannot sue for employment discrimination, SCOTUSblog (Jul. 8, 2020, 2:06 PM),