The Supreme Court announced today that it would hear arguments in two employment cases involving whether teachers in Catholic Schools can file lawsuits in pursuit of employment non-discrimination rights. The Court has consolidated St. James School v. Biel and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, both on appeal from the Ninth Circuit, which decided the teachers could sue.
We previously reported on Biel, which involves a teacher at St. James Catholic School in Torrance, California, who was fired when she told her employer that she would need to miss work on some days to undergo chemotherapy for breast cancer. She sued the school under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Still, 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 whether she was described by the school as a minister and whether her job had “important religious functions.” The Ninth Circuit ruled 2-1 that her position did not meet the requirements of being a minister and therefore, she could sue.
The Morrisey-Berru case involves a teacher at a small Catholic School who allegedly refused to follow some new policies and procedures at the school concerning reading and writing curriculum, a healthy diet program, and special needs programs. In response, the principal moved her to a part-time teaching position and then decided not to renew her contract in 2015. Morrisey-Berru filed a lawsuit for age discrimination. The trial judge dismissed the case according to the 2012 unanimous Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor. Still, the Ninth Circuit reversed the decision, stating that her duties were not religious enough to fall within the ministerial exception.
The Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor looks at the various circumstances concerning a religious entity’s employment to determine whether they have the rights of secular employees. The more religious the job duties, the less access the religious employee has to employment rights available to secular employees under the law.
In both cases, the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the teachers’ rights to protection from discrimination. Religious organizations have the right to autonomy under the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment, and the Court may be looking to these cases to make a more unambiguous determination of what constitutes religious employment. The Court may ultimately decide teachers employed by religious schools are all determined to be “ministers” within the context of the ministerial exception. Religious organizations view the full scope of their activity as faith-based regardless of whether or not the work has an overtly religious aspect to it.
Both cases put the schools in the uncomfortable position of arguing that they have the right to discriminate against their teaching staff with impunity. Still, the risk of routine government interference with the administration of religious organizations could harm their ability to practice their faith. In all likelihood, the Court will uphold Hosanna-Tabor and overturn the 9th Circuit in both of these cases. Employees will need to recognize that they may be giving up their rights against discrimination in exchange for working in a faith-based environment.
Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled. The Becket Fund represents both schools.