Supreme Court to Decide on Scope of Church Immunity in Religious School Employment Cases

December 18, 2019 Updated: December 18, 2019

The Supreme Court has agreed to consider how much protection church schools have from government intervention when it comes to choosing teachers for its religion classes.

The top court agreed (pdf) on Wednesday to weigh in on two religious school employment cases where two Californian Catholic elementary schools were sued for job discrimination when they did not renew the teachers’ contracts. The court has consolidated the two cases.

It will be the second religious school case to test the boundaries for the separation of church and state in the court this term. The Supreme Court has already agreed to hear another dispute on the legality of a Montana law that bars religious schools from receiving scholarships funded by public money.

The schools, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, are relying on a 2012 “ministerial exception” principle, which says the First Amendment allows religious schools to choose their own religion teachers. According to the religious rights law firm, the exception protects the freedom of religious groups to choose “ministerial” employees without interference from bureaucrats or courts.

“If courts can second-guess a Catholic school’s judgment about who should teach religious beliefs to fifth graders, then neither Catholics nor any other religious group can be confident in their ability to convey the faith to the next generation,” Montserrat Alvarado, vice president and executive director at Becket, said in a statement.

“Do we really want judges, juries, or bureaucrats deciding who ought to teach Catholicism at a parish school, or Judaism at a Jewish day school? Of course not,” Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, added in the statement.

The religious schools—Our Lady of Guadalupe School and St. James Catholic School—asked the Supreme Court to hear the cases after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in favor of the teachers—Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Biel—saying that although the teachers performed religious functions, they did not have a ministerial status, and therefore the ministerial exception does not apply.

The schools claim that Morrissey-Berru and Biel performed important religious functions as they both taught a religion class, taught Catholic values to their students, joined the students in prayer, and accompanied the students to Mass and other services. The schools said their decision to not renew their contacts was due to a history of poor performance, while Morrissey-Berru said she was let go claiming age discrimination. Similarly, Biel also alleged discrimination in her case.

Moreover, in both of the cases, the teachers claimed that they did not perform any ministerial functions during the course of their employment.

The Supreme Court has ruled on a series of cases upholding religious freedom. Last term, the top court’s justices allowed a 40-foot-high Latin cross to stay on public land in a Maryland suburb of Washington, rejecting arguments that the cross implies government endorsement of Christianity.

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