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Petitions of the week

Christian school renews effort to expand religious freedom over employment

A courier drops off a package at the Supreme Court

The Petitions of the Week column highlights a selection of cert petitions recently filed in the Supreme Court. A list of all petitions we’re watching is available here.

Nearly three years ago, the Supreme Court extended a First Amendment protection known as the “ministerial exception,” a court-created doctrine that bars courts from reviewing employment decisions by religious employers about their ministers. Last year, four justices issued a statement regarding the denial of a petition that sought to further expand the types of workers who qualify as a minister covered by the exception. Writing for the group, Justice Samuel Alito indicated that although the case was not a suitable candidate for Supreme Court review at that point, the Christian college that filed the petition could return to the court down the road.

That dispute settled in December. But with four justices — the number it takes to grant a petition — signaling their interest in expanding the independence of religious institutions to make employment decisions, it was only a matter of time before another case came to the court. This week, we highlight cert petitions that ask the court to consider, among other things, at what stage of litigation the ministerial exception should come into play.

Gregory Tucker was a science teacher at Faith Christian Academy, a religious school operated by the nondenominational Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada, Colorado. Tucker later took on an additional position at the school known by two names: Director of Student Life and Chaplain. Three years into this role, he began planning Faith Christian’s weekly chapel meetings.

In January 2018, Tucker held one of these meetings on the issue of race and faith. Initially supported by the school, Tucker’s discussion drew heated criticism from parents for covering topics that included white privilege and systemic bias against people of color. Things devolved quickly from there. Explaining that it disagreed with Tucker’s reading of scripture, Faith Christian took away his supervision of weekly chapel meetings. Tucker resisted, and the school demoted him to his teaching duties only. By the end of February, it had fired him outright.

Tucker sued Faith Christian for wrongful termination and argued that the decision to fire him violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act because he had opposed alleged race discrimination at the school. The school asked for the case to be dismissed under the ministerial exception.

Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit refused to quash Tucker’s lawsuit. Whether Tucker served as a minister is a difficult question for a jury to answer, the 10th Circuit explained. Although the ministerial exception might ultimately shield Faith Christian from liability, the court ruled, it does not protect the school against having to litigate Tucker’s lawsuit at all.

In Faith Bible Chapel International v. Tucker, the school asks the justices to step in. Faith Christian argues that the question whether Tucker is a “minister” and the decision to fire him are matters of internal church doctrine, and that subjecting it to a long and costly trial would violate the purpose of the First Amendment’s protections for religious employers. In the case denied last February, four justices concluded that the ministerial-exception determination wasn’t yet ready for review. Here, the school contends, the timing issue itself is the question.

The group representing Faith Christian filed another petition, Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia v. Belya, raising similar issues. In that case, the question is whether a church can invoke the First Amendment to avoid a defamation suit from a former priest suspended in light of allegations that he forged documents to be appointed as a bishop.

A list of this week’s featured petitions is below:

Faith Bible Chapel International v. Tucker
Issues: (1) Whether the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception” should be understood as an immunity from judicial interference in church employment decisions falling within the exception, or instead as a mere defense against liability; and (2) whether the ministerial exception applies here to bar employment-discrimination claims by a school chaplain who led chapel services, taught in the Bible department, and provided spiritual guidance and counseling to students.

Troy University v. Farmer
Issue: Whether a state waives its sovereign immunity from private suit in the courts of another state by operating in the state under a corporate registration statute with a sue-and-be-sued clause.

Murco Wall Products, Inc. v. Galier
Issues: (1) Whether the “minimum contacts” requirement for specific jurisdiction is satisfied whenever a defendant has made limited sales of products to customers based in the forum state, even when there is no evidence that those customers used or resold those products in that state; and (2) whether a plaintiff ’s cause of action can be said to relate to or arise out of the defendant’s forum contacts in the absence of evidence about which of the defendant’s products allegedly caused the plaintiff’s injury.

Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP
Issues: (1) Whether the district court erred when it failed to apply the presumption of good faith and to holistically analyze South Carolina Congressional District 1 and the South Carolina General Assembly’s intent; (2) whether the district court erred in failing to enforce the alternative-map requirement in this circumstantial case; (3) whether the district court erred when it failed to disentangle race from politics; (4) whether the district court erred in finding racial predominance when it never analyzed District 1’s compliance with traditional districting principles; (5) whether the district court clearly erred in finding that the General Assembly used a racial target as a proxy for politics when the record showed only that the General Assembly was aware of race, that race and politics are highly correlated, and that the General Assembly drew districts based on election data; and (6) whether the district court erred in upholding the intentional-discrimination claim when it never even considered whether—let alone found that—District 1 has a discriminatory effect.

Skaar v. McDonough
Issue: Whether the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals has statutory or inherent authority to include veterans whose individual claims are not yet exhausted in a class seeking injunctive relief, where the court has jurisdiction over a named representative’s claim.

Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia v. Belya
Issues: (1) Whether the First Amendment’s church autonomy doctrine and its “ministerial exception” should be understood as an immunity from judicial interference in internal religious leadership disputes covered by the doctrine, or instead as a mere defense against liability; and (2) whether a minister’s defamation claims against his church arising from internal church disciplinary proceedings are barred by the church autonomy doctrine or may instead proceed under the “neutral principles” approach developed for church property disputes.

Recommended Citation: Kalvis Golde, Christian school renews effort to expand religious freedom over employment, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 17, 2023, 5:45 PM),