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U.S. Supreme Court Provides Religious Institutions Limited Exemption from Anti-Discrimination Laws

on Friday, 10 July 2020 in Labor & Employment Law Update: Sarah M. Huyck, Editor

On July 8, 2020, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed that teachers at religious institutions are not entitled to the protections of federal employment discrimination laws if their duties include religious instruction. The combined decisions, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, Case No. 19-267, and St. James School v. Darryl Biel, No. 19-348, involved two teachers at Catholic primary schools claiming discrimination by Catholic institutions.

Plaintiff Morrissey-Berru taught fifth and sixth grade courses, the curriculum for which included religion. Morrissey-Berru claimed that Our Lady of Guadalupe School demoted her and failed to renew her contract in favor of a younger teacher, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Plaintiff Biel also taught all subjects for first and fifth grade, including religion. Biel alleged that St. James School discharged her because she requested a leave of absence to obtain breast cancer treatment, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Neither teacher had the title of “minister,” nor did they perform the traditional functions of a religious leader. In fact, Morrissey-Berru asserted that she was not even a practicing Catholic. Nevertheless, the schools argued that both women performed important religious duties, such as teaching classes about religion and leading prayers with students. Thus, the schools argued, the “ministerial exception” applied, and the schools should be free to terminate the employees as they saw fit without government interference.

Finding in favor of the schools, the Court held that the First Amendment “protects the right of religious institutions ‘to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.’” For religious schools, “educating young people in their faith” lies at the very core of their missions. Thus, schools must have autonomy in the selection of the individuals who carry out that mission. In analyzing whether the “ministerial exception” applied, the Court expressly declined to adopt a rigid checklist based on factors considered in prior cases, such as job titles or whether the role required formal religious training. Instead, “what matters, at bottom, is what an employee does.” Further, the Court held that courts should defer to the employer’s assessment of whether an employee performs a significant religious function. Because both plaintiffs were entrusted by their respective schools with the responsibility of educating students in the Catholic faith, the First Amendment prohibited judicial intervention into the employment relationship.

Notably, application of the ministerial exception does not require that the school’s actions directly implicate religious matters (as compared to, for example, a case where the employee disclosed that he or she was a homosexual and was fired because of that disclosure, or a case where teacher’s instruction on evolution contradicted the religious doctrine of creationism). Here, in both cases, the schools claimed to have terminated the plaintiffs’ teaching contracts due to poor execution of general curriculum and classroom management. However, the Court’s inquiry into the employment relationship ended once it found that the employees performed ministerial functions, regardless of whether those ministerial functions were at issue in the case.

These decisions come mere weeks after the Court ruled, in the landmark decision Bostock v. Clayton County, that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act generally protects LGBTQ+ employees from discrimination. Perhaps foreshadowing the Court’s rulings in these parochial school cases, Bostock expressly noted that religious exemptions may supersede Title VII’s protections for LGBTQ+ employees in certain circumstances. It remains to be seen how the Court will apply its reasoning to other religious-based employers.

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