The Supreme Court Holds That Catholic School Teachers are “Ministers” and Cannot Bring Employment Discrimination Claims
By Luis F. Calvo
On July 8, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 7-2 decision holding that Catholic schoolteachers cannot bring employment discrimination claims against the religious institutions that employ them. The Court reached its decision citing the so-called “ministerial exception,” based on the First Amendment’s protection of the rights of religious institutions “to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” As a result of the Court’s decision, Catholic schoolteachers and their peers across the religious spectrum can no longer sue their employers for employment discrimination if they meet certain criteria outlined by the Court.
The Supreme Court’s decision resolved two separate cases brought to the Court, both employment discrimination claims against the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. In the first case, Agnes Morrissey-Berru was a fifth or sixth-grade teacher at Our Lady of Guadalupe School and taught various subjects, including religion. After many years of teaching, the school demoted Morrissey-Berru from full to part-time and subsequently declined to renew her contract. Morrissey-Berru claimed that the school demoted her and failed to renew her contract to hire a younger teacher. Morrissey-Berru filed a claim with the EECP and then filed suit under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The school successfully invoked the “ministerial exception” and obtained summary judgment in its favor, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed holding that Morrissey-Berru did not have a “minister” title and did not publicly hold herself out as such.
In the second case, Kristen Biel brought suit against the St. James School, another Los Angeles Catholic school. Biel was a substitute teacher who taught all subjects, including religion. Following a leave of absence to obtain treatment for breast cancer, Biel’s employment was terminated. After complaining to the EEOC, Biel brought suit against the school. Like Morrissey-Berru, St. James obtained summary judgment, which was reversed on appeal. Notably, both plaintiffs had substantially similar yearly renewable contracts, were required to follow the schools’ Catholic Mission, and were considered “catechists” or teachers of religion.
The Court held that both plaintiffs were “ministers,” and the religious schools were entitled to invoke the “ministerial exception” under which “courts are bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions.” Justice Alito, writing for the majority, explained that the ministerial exception is recognized by courts to preserve the church’s authority to “to select, supervise, and if necessary, remove a minister without interference by secular authorities.” Otherwise, Justice Alito reasoned, “a wayward minister’s preaching, teaching, and counseling could contradict the church’s tenets and lead the congregation away from the faith.”
Not all employees or schoolteachers at religious institutions are “ministers.” The Court outlined a variety of factors, which courts should consider in affording a person the title of “minister” and thus subject to the “ministerial exception.”
The title alone is not determinative since many religions call their religious positions by many names (i.e., priest, nuns, rabbis, and imams). Instead, the dispositive factor is “what the employees do.”
To that end, the Court focused on religious education, which is “vital to many faiths practiced in the United States.” Moreover, the plaintiff schoolteachers “both performed vital religious duties.” Notably, these duties included “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.” The teachers also provided instruction on religion and were expected to guide students to live in accordance with the faith. The teachers further prayed with their students and prepared them for participation in religious activities.
Justice Alito added that judges in a country as diverse as ours “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.” And here, both schools expressly saw the teachers as playing a vital part in carrying out the mission of the church.
The Court declined an invitation to adopt a rigid formula to guide courts in determining if a “ministerial exception” existed. Instead, Justice Alito explained, “when a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”
Justice Sotomayor, along with Justice Ginsburg, filed a dissent. Justice Sotomayor criticized the majority’s focus on “a single consideration: whether a church thinks its employees play an important religious role.”
The Supreme Court’s decision sends a clear message to religious institutions and their employees: if an employee plays “a vital part in carrying out the mission” of a particular religion, that employee may be considered a “minister” and thus barred from bringing an employment discrimination claim against its employer. Religious institutions, including parochial schools, should carefully consider the duties performed by their teachers to determine whether they may be exempted from bringing certain employment claims. Religious employers may also consider revising their employment agreements and policies to clarify the religious duties and expectations of their teachers.
©ScottHulse, P.C. This material is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice nor does it create a client-lawyer relationship between ScottHulse and any recipient. Recipients should consult with counsel before taking any actions based on the information contained within this material. Should you have any questions about how this decision impacts your institution, please contact any of our firm’s Labor and Employment lawyers.
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