Court Battles

Supreme Court weighs rights of religious employers facing discrimination suits

The Supreme Court on Monday wrestled with a pair of cases concerning Catholic schools that say a religious exemption shields them from discrimination suits brought by former teachers.

The cases, both originating in Los Angeles County, pit First Amendment safeguards for religious employers against workers’ rights.

The former teachers are Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who has alleged age discrimination, and now-deceased Kristen Biel, whose widower said Biel’s school fired her in violation of disability laws while she battled breast cancer.

The Catholic schools claim immunity under the so-called “ministerial exception,” a First Amendment doctrine that bars lawsuits by employees who are considered “ministers” due to the religious nature of their work.

The justices appeared divided over the question of whether the religious aspects of grade-school teachers’ jobs are enough to disqualify their discrimination claims.

“You’re asking for something broader than giving the schools the power to hire or fire certain kinds of people because of how they teach the religion or don’t teach it and you haven’t explained why it’s necessary,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor told one school’s lawyer.

Justice Neil Gorsuch said that both sides presented thorny questions about where the exception applies.

“Struggling with where do you draw the line and how much entanglement both sides are going to get us in here in deciding what’s an important enough person in a particular faith and how we avoid that difficulty,” Gorsuch said.

A lawyer for the former employees argued that while there were some religious aspects to their teaching jobs, they should not be considered ministers.

“The schools’ argument would strip more than 300,000 lay teachers in religious schools across the country of basic employment law protections and necessarily included in this number are teachers who teach so-called secular classes,” said Jeffrey Fisher, a lawyer representing the teachers.

Fisher added that those who’d lose job protections include “not just the football coach or the administrator who gives the morning prayer over the loudspeaker in school, but you’d have the nurses in Catholic hospitals, you’d have the teenagers in summer camps who are camp counselors who lead other campers in a prayer every night.”

The cases ask the justices to bring clarity to the ministerial exception by providing a clearer definition of who qualifies as a minister, currently a legal gray area.

The schools asked the justices to follow prior Supreme Court and lower court rulings that say ministers are those who carry out “important religious functions,” a definition the schools say applies to their former employees.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the teachers, finding their work was secular, not ministerial, which prompted the schools’ appeal to the Supreme Court.

The Trump administration is siding with the schools in the case, arguing that the teachers qualify as ministers and thus don’t have standing to bring their discrimination claims.

A decision is likely by the end of June.

Tags Neil Gorsuch Sonia Sotomayor

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