Last week, the US Supreme Court, handed down a ruling on what is known as the “ministerial exception”. What’s that? The ministerial exception basically says that the government cannot interfere with how religious organizations (which include churches, synagogues, mosques among other organizations under religious auspices) lead worship or teach religion. It also means that such entities are not subject to federal or state anti-discrimination laws. OK, but how and when would the ministerial exception apply, and what would it mean for employers and employees? What were the issues in this recently-decided case and what was the Court’s reasoning? That’s this week’s topic on The EmpLAWyerologist, so read on… The case is Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey Berru 591 US ______ (2020). In a nutshell, here’s what went down:
First, the case is a consolidation of two separate but similar claims by two teachers at two different Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Agnes Morrissey-Berru taught at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, and Kristen Biel taught at St. James School. Both were subject to substantially similar agreements delineating the Schools’ mission to promote a Catholic School faith community, ” imposed commitments regarding religious instruction, worship, and personal modeling of the faith; and explained that teachers’ performance would be reviewed on those bases. ” Each teacher taught religion in the classroom, worshipped and prayed with their students, and had their performance measured on religious bases.
Both teachers were terminated by and sued their respective schools for wrongful termination. Ms. Morrissey-Berru claimed that she was demoted, terminated, and then replaced with a younger teacher, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Ms. Biel alleged she was discharged after requesting a leave of absence to obtain breast cancer treatment in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In the first claim, the school moved for summary judgment, invoking the ministerial exception set forth in Hosana-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v EEOC (bear with me I’ll explain that one in the next paragraph) and won. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that Morrissey-Berru, didn’t fall within the exception, didn’t have the title “minister” had limited formal religious training, and didn’t publicly hold herself out to be a religious leader. Similarly, St. James school moved for and got summary judgment against Ms. Biel, and the Ninth Circuit reversed there too, holding that she lacked the religious training, credentials, and ministerial background present in Hosana-Tabor. Both schools appealed and SCOTUS consolidated both cases and heard the appeal.
OK, before I get into what SCOTUS decided in this case and why, what’s the Hosana-Tabor case and why is it important here? That case also involved a teacher in a parochial school. This teacher led the students in prayer and taught a religion class several days a week. In 2004 she left on disability and was diagnosed with narcolepsy. In 2005, once her doctors cleared her to resume working, she sought to return to her teaching job, and the school told her they’d already hired someone else. The school fired her for “insubordination and disruptive behavior” after she threatened to sue. She then proceeded with a discrimination claim under the ADA. SCOTUS in 2012 unanimously ruled that “the Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own”. The Court also ruled that the teacher was a “minister” within the meaning of the ministerial exception, which itself mandated dismissal of the claim under the First Amendment. The Court explicitly stated that it was not deciding the question of whether religious organizations could be sued for other reasons, such as breach of contract or “tortious conduct”. The Court also developed factors for determining who qualifies as a “minister” within the meaning of the ministerial exception. The factors, in general, included whether the employee’s duties included religious functions, the employee’s title, and how the school viewed the employee.
Returning to last week’s ruling: SCOTUS ruled 7-2 that these teachers were “ministers” within the meaning of the ministerial exception and therefore the First Amendment mandated dismissal of their claims. The Court reasoned that ” Implicit in the Hosanna-Tabor decision was a recognition that educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of a private religious school’s mission”. The Court also noted that:
There is abundant record evidence that they both performed vital religious duties, such as educating their students in the Catholic faith and guiding their students to live their lives in accordance with that faith. Their titles did not include the term “minister” and they had less formal religious training than Perich*, but their core responsibilities were essentially the same. And their schools expressly saw them as playing a vital role in carrying out the church’s mission. A religious institution’s explanation of the role of its employees in the life of the religion in question is important.
*Perich was the teacher who filed the claim in Hosana-Tabor.
But wait a minute. Unlike the teacher in Hosana-Tabor, these teachers did not have the title “minister” and they had less formal religious training. The Ninth Circuit found those factors to be sufficiently relevant to reverse the grant of summary judgment to both schools. SCOTUS’s response: the Ninth Circuit’s reading of the relevant factors that SCOTUS articulated in Hosana-Tabor was “far too rigid”, resulting in a “distorted analysis”.
So what does all this mean? A religious organization may not be subject to anti-discrimination laws with respect to employees that are leading worship and or teaching the tenets of the faith. It does NOT mean that it is never subject to anti-discrimination laws though. Not all people employed by a religious organization will fall within this exception. For example, an administrative assistant who doesn’t teach or lead worship probably doesn’t fall within this exception. While this case may have broadened the exception somewhat, it is still likely a very narrow exception.
What about employers in entities that are not religious organizations but are themselves firmly entrenched in religious beliefs? Can they be exempt from certain federal or state requirements? Well, SCOTUS did once again re-visit the issue of exemptions from the ACA’s contraceptive mandate, but that’s a subject for another post– maybe next week!
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