Supreme Court: Ministerial Exception Bars Teachers' Age and Disability Discrimination Claims
- In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the First Amendment ministerial exception doctrine bars courts from entertaining an age or disability employment discrimination claim brought by two elementary school teachers against their prior Catholic school employers.
- The Supreme Court reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on the grounds that the Religion Clauses protect the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide matters of faith and doctrine without government intrusion.
- According to the court, "When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with 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."
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, Nos. 19-267 and 19-348 (July 8, 2020), that the First Amendment ministerial exception doctrine bars courts from entertaining an age or disability employment discrimination claim brought by two elementary school teachers against their prior employers, two Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. According to the court, "When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with 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."
As background, Agnes Morrissey-Berru taught all subjects, including religion, at Our Lady of Guadalupe School. She took religious education courses, attended faculty prayer services and could be required to participate in school liturgy. She described herself as a non-practicing Catholic. Her employment agreement stated that the school's mission was "to develop and promote a Catholic School Faith Community"; informed her that "[a]ll [her] duties and responsibilities as a Teache[r were to] be performed within this overriding commitment"; and required her to "model and promote" Catholic "faith and morals." As such, Morrissey-Berru was "considered a catechist." She occasionally selected and prepared student to read at Mass and prepared her students for participation in Mass and for communion and confession. Her class began or ended with prayer.
Kristen Biel was a long-term substitute teacher at St. James School. She also taught all subjects, including religion. She attended a religious conference that imparted "[d]ifferent techniques on teaching and incorporating God" into the classroom. She was Catholic. Her employment agreement was in pertinent part nearly identical to Morrissey-Berru's. The school handbook defined "religious development" as the school's first goal and provided that teachers must "mode[l] the faith life," "exemplif[y] the teachings of Jesus Christ," "integrat[e] Catholic thought and principles into secular subjects," and "prepar[e] students to receive the sacraments." Biel also prayed and worshipped with her students.
Lawsuit and Appeal
Morrisey-Berru sued claiming that her annual contract was not renewed due to age discrimination. Biel alleged that she was not renewed because she had requested a leave of absence to obtain treatment for breast cancer. The schools said they did not renew the plaintiffs due to performance. The district courts granted the schools' summary judgment pursuant to the ministerial exception doctrine, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. The Ninth Circuit noted that Morrisey-Berru did not have the formal title of "minister," had limited formal religious training and did not hold herself out to the public as a religious leader or minister, and ruled that Biel lacked credentials, training and ministerial background.
Supreme Court Decision
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit on the grounds that the Religion Clauses protect the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide matters of faith and doctrine without government intrusion. The court distinguished the manner in which English courts have historically decided church disputes, including religious doctrinal disagreements, for the established Church of England. The First Amendment precludes American courts from reaching similar determinations.
According to the court, "The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission. Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independent of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate."
The court ruled that the Ninth Circuit focused too much on formulaic factors such as the title "minister," which is not relevant in several religious traditions (e.g., Islam and Judaism). To accord more meaning to titles, courts would have to decide which titles count and, in so doing, look behind the titles at what the positions entail. The court added that insisting in every case on rigid academic requirements could have a distorting effect, as would limiting the doctrine's applicability to "practicing" members of a religion or only co-religionists. Determining what either of the latter mean would, in the final analysis, cause entanglement with religion.
Dissenting, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg criticized the court for reducing its analysis, in their view, to one consideration: whether a church thinks its employees play an important religious role. In their view, the teachers taught primarily secular subjects, lacked substantial religious titles and training, and were not required to be Catholic. Unlike the dissent, the court found that the plaintiffs "were entrusted most directly with the responsibility of educating their students in the faith. And not only were they obligated to provide instruction about the Catholic faith, but they were also expected to guide their students, by word and deed, toward the goal of living their lives in accordance with their faith."
For purposes of applying the ministerial exception doctrine after the Supreme Court's decision, "[w]hat matters, at bottom, is what an employee does."
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