Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Supreme Court Interprets "Ministerial Exception" To Employment Discrimination Claims Broadly

In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, (Sup. Ct., July 8, 2020), the U.S. Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision held that two elementary school teachers in separate Catholic schools, are covered by the "ministerial exception" so that they cannot sue for employment discrimination. Justice Alito's majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh deferred in significant part to churches' own definitions of their employees:
In a country with the religious diversity of the United States, judges cannot be expected to have a complete understanding and appreciation of the role played by every person who performs a particular role in every religious tradition. A religious institution’s explanation of the role of such employees in the life of the religion in question is important. 
Comparing the teachers here with the one in the Supreme Court's prior ministerial exemption decision in Hosanna-Tabor, the Court said in part:
When we apply this understanding of the Religion Clauses to the cases now before us, it is apparent that Morrissey-Berru and Biel qualify for the exemption.... There is abundant record evidence that they both performed vital religious duties. Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught, and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility. 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. They prayed with their students, attended Mass with the students, and prepared the children for their participation in other religious activities.... Their titles did not include the term “minister,” and they had less formal religious training, but their core responsibilities as teachers of religion were essentially the same. And both their schools expressly saw them as playing a vital part in carrying out the mission of the church, and the schools’ definition and explanation of their roles is important.
Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Gorsuch, filed a concurring opinion, saying in part:
I write separately, however, to reiterate my view that the Religion Clauses require civil courts to defer to religious organizations’ good-faith claims that a certain employee’s position is “ministerial.”
Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, dissented, saying in part:
In foreclosing the teachers’ claims, the Court skews the facts, ignores the applicable standard of review, and collapses Hosanna-Tabor’s careful analysis into a single consideration: whether a church thinks its employees play an important religious role. Because that simplistic approach has no basis in law and strips thousands of school teachers of their legal protections, I respectfully dissent....
[T]he Court’s apparent deference here threatens to make nearly anyone whom the schools might hire “ministers” unprotected from discrimination in the hiring process. That cannot be right....
NBC News reports on the decision.