Supreme Court Ruling is a Major Setback to the Rights of Employees of Religious Institutions
On July 8, 2020 the United States Supreme Court in the cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267; and St. James School v. Biel, No. 19-348, handed down a 7-2 decision ruling in favor of two Roman Catholic schools in Southern California, substantially broadening the reach of the so-called “ministerial exception.” The “ministerial exception” forbids court interference with matters of religious doctrine on the theory that the First Amendment protects such matters, and extends to those whose positions involve doctrinal issues, for example “ministers.” Those deemed to hold such positions cannot sue for employment discrimination under anti-discrimination statutes such as Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. There has been substantial litigation regarding which employees of religious institutions fall within the “ministerial” category, and the Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267; and St. James School v. Biel, No. 19-348 decision broadens the category substantially, raising the question of whether any employees of a religious institution are protected from discrimination.
In this case, the employer schools were each being sued by former teachers for discriminatory non-renewal of their employment contracts. One of teachers, Kristen Biel, a teacher at St. James School in Torrance, California was informed that her teaching contract would not renewed after being diagnosed with breast cancer. The other teacher, Agnes Morrissey-Berru contended that her contract with Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach, CA was not renewed due to her age. The contracts between the churches and the teachers in the most recent case were similar. Both stated that their Catholic faith was fundamental to their work and both taught religious studies. Attorneys representing the religious institutions in question argued successfully that teachers with such job duties should be considered “ministers” and are thus not entitled to the protection of the anti-discrimination laws. The seven-justice majority, consisting of both conservative and liberal justices, agreed.
Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg properly dissented. In Justice Sotomayor’s dissent, she stated that the Court’s decision “strips thousands of schoolteachers of their legal protections.” She said the decision:
Gives an employer free rein to discriminate because of race, sex, pregnancy, age, disability, or other traits protected by law when selecting or firing their ‘ministers,’ even when the discrimination is wholly unrelated to the employer’s religious beliefs or practices. That is, an employer need not cite or possess a religious reason at all; the ministerial exception even condones animus.
We agree. No religious doctrine is implicated by firing a teacher because she has breast cancer, or because of her age. Nothing in the First Amendment suggests otherwise. The First Amendment shouldn’t be used as a “get out of jail free” card permitting employers who also happen to be affiliated with religious institutions to discriminate with impunity.