SCOTUS Rules Federal Employment Discrimination Laws Do Not Extend to Catholic School Teachers

main entrance to catholic school

The United States Supreme Court handed down two decisions interpreting federal anti-discrimination laws this year. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v Morrissey-Berru, the Supreme Court ruled that federal employment discrimination laws do not extend to teachers at Catholic schools under the “ministerial exception.”

Catholic School Teachers Claim Age, Disability Discrimination

Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Biel each say that their contracts as Catholic school teachers were not renewed for discriminatory reasons. Morrissey-Berru taught fifth and sixth grade at Our Lady of Guadalupe School (OLG), a primary Catholic school in Los Angeles. In 2014, OLG reduced her role from full-time to part-time. The next year, it declined to renew her contract. Morrissey-Berru filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) saying that OLG’s actions were motivated by a desire to replace her with a younger teacher in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). OLG’s response to her complaint was similar to many ADEA cases: that an older employee was having difficulty adjusting to a new program -- in this case, reading and writing.

Kristen Biel was also a Catholic school teacher in Los Angeles, teaching first and then fifth grade at St. James School. When St. James declined to renew her contract she too filed charges at the EEOC. Biel claimed that the Catholic school had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act after she requested a leave of absence to receive treatment for breast cancer. St. James’ defense said she failed to observe the school’s planned curriculum and keep an orderly classroom.

Federal Employment Discrimination Laws and the Freedom of Religion

If the two plaintiffs had been public school teachers, their claims of age and disability discrimination would have been squarely within federal anti-discrimination laws. But because Morrissey-Berru and Biel worked for private religious schools, the schools said that they were immune to the federal discrimination laws under the First Amendment’s freedom of religion.

Federal anti-discrimination laws, including the ADA and the ADEA are designed to protect employees nationwide against hiring, firing, and other employment decisions because of who or what they are. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects older workers from actions that favor younger employees. The Americans with Disabilities Act prevents discrimination based on a person’s current or past medical condition or treatment.

However, all federal laws must fit within the boundaries set by the United States Constitution. That includes the First Amendment, which says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Supreme Court has said that means federal law can’t interfere with religious institutions' ability to decide matters “of faith and doctrine.” As Justice Alito explained in the Court’s recent decision:

This does not mean that religious institutions enjoy a general immunity from secular laws, but it does protect their autonomy with respect to internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission. And a component of this autonomy is the selection of the individuals who play certain key roles.

In the context of employment discrimination laws, this is called the “ministerial exception.” It means that secular courts can’t get involved in employment disputes involving “ministerial” positions within religious institutions.

SCOTUS Opinion Expands Ministerial Exception Beyond Ministers

Until now, the ministerial exception has been defined narrowly. An earlier SCOTUS decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v EEOC, laid out four factors in deciding that the exception applied to a “Minister of Religion, Commissioned” in a Lutheran private school:

  • Title
  • Extent of religious training
  • The employee’s holding herself out as a minister within the church community
  • Responsibility to teach religion and participate in religious activities

In reviewing Morrissey-Berru and Biel’s cases, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had applied these four factors, and found that teachers at Catholic schools didn’t qualify as ministers. However, on July 8, 2020, the United States Supreme Court decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v Morrissee-Berru overturned the Ninth Circuit and expanded the ministerial exception by changing the way a person’s role was evaluated.

In a 7-2 opinion (with only Justices Sotomayor and Ginsberg dissenting), the Supreme Court said:

“What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does.”

The fact that Morrissey-Berru and Biel were titled teachers, not ministers, didn’t matter. Nor did the fact that neither of them had gone to seminary or received much formal religious education. The Court didn’t even mention whether the ladies held themselves out as ministers (presumably because they did not), though it did say it was not the court’s job to decide if the plaintiffs were “co-religious” with the school’s teachings. Instead, the Court focused almost exclusively on the religious aspects of the plaintiffs’ work as teachers in Catholic schools:

  • That they taught all subjects, including religion
  • That they took religious education courses at the schools’ request
  • That they were expected to attend prayer
  • That they prayed with their students
  • That they worshipped with their students
  • That they prepared their students for Mass, Confession, and Communion rites
  • That they took their students to Mass
  • That the employment agreements they signed defined the school’s mission as “to develop and promote a Catholic School Faith Community”
  • That their employment was evaluated based on Catholic faith and morals

Based on all these factors related to the plaintiffs’ job descriptions, the Court found:

“As elementary school teachers responsible for providing instruction in all subjects, including religion, they were the members of the school staff who 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 the faith.”

Therefore, the ministerial exception applied to the plaintiffs’ cases, and the federal discrimination laws did not.

The ministerial exception can feel like a wall standing between employees of religious institutions and their rights. However, the federal processes it applies to are not the only option to get relief. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our employment discrimination attorneys know how to work with the law, and employers, to get employees the relief they need. We can negotiate with religious institutions and, when necessary, fight back against ministerial exception defenses to make sure your rights are protected, and your needs met. Contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today to talk to an attorney.

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