Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the ministerial exception does not bar a teacher at a Catholic school in Torrance, California who was fired because she requested time off work for breast surgery and chemotherapy from pursuing a claim under the Americans with Disability Act.
In this case, Kristen Biel, a teacher at St. James Catholic School, was fired when she told her employer that she would need to miss work to undergo chemotherapy for breast cancer. She sued the school under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the trial court ruled on summary judgment that she had no rights under the First Amendment's "ministerial exemption" to laws that would protect other employers.
In its ruling, the Ninth Circuit considered the "totality of circumstances," including whether she was otherwise described by the school as a minister and whether her job had "important religious functions," and two of the three judges found that her position did not meet the requirements of being a minister.
Biel's job duties included teaching all the academic subjects to fifth-graders at her school, including thirty minutes of standard religious curriculum, and attended a monthly school-wide mass where "her sole responsibility was to keep her class quiet and orderly."
The Ninth Circuit considered the Supreme Court's Hosanna-Tabor case which upheld the ministerial exemption in a similar case involving a teacher in a Lutheran school who was fired after being diagnosed with narcolepsy, noting that the Court declined to adopt "a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister," and instead would look at all the parts of his or her employment. In Hosanna-Tabor the church school had granted her the title of "Minister of Religion, Commissioned" and periodically reviewed her "skills of ministry."
The dissenting judge in Biel disagreed with the majority, finding that there was enough religious content within the faculty handbook to support a finding that she worked in a ministerial position.
If the employer in Biel does not immediately settle, the Ninth Circuit decision sends the case back to the trial court to further develop the record and determine whether the school violated her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, the case will likely be appealed as religious institutions are not likely to enjoy the prospect of being held to the same ADA standards as their non-religious counterparts.
There are a couple of lessons here – the first being that employees who work for religious institutions make not only financial sacrifices including lower salaries and benefits, but also leave behind rights that they would have if working for secular organizations. Secondly, as a result of this decision and Hosanna-Tabor, religious institutions may decide to make it eminently clear beyond a reasonable doubt that all of their employees meet the most stringent definition of "minister" relayed by the courts for purposes of mitigating liability. But neither of these make religious institutions look good – religious institutions need to be setting the standard for excellence in human policies and it is a tragedy whenever these kinds of cases arise because they fail to meet even a secular standard of goodness.

The ministerial exception is important in that it protects religious institutions from government regulations that could harm their distinct religious functions, but an aggregation of cases like this where it is not used in advancement of religious practices and policies will tend to weaken that protection over time.
For more background on the case, see the San Francisco Chronicle, 12/17/18.

9th Circuit Ruling: KRISTEN BIEL v. ST. JAMES SCHOOL, No. 17-55180 (December 17, 2018)

Photo: DepositPhotos.com – Stock photo used for illustration purposes only.

 
 

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