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Supreme Court Clarified the Applicability of Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws to Religious Schools 

The Supreme Court recently issued a major victory to religious schools in a series of decisions aimed at promoting religious liberty. The Court ruled that religious schools are not subject to federal civil rights laws barring discrimination when making decisions related to employment and administration of their teachers.

The Supreme Court heard two cases brought by elementary school teachers in California who claimed that they were illegally discriminated against. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, Agnes Morrissey-Berru claimed discrimination on the basis of age discrimination after her contract was not renewed. The school claimed that the contract was not renewed due to her poor performance.

In St. James School v. Biel, Kristen Biel claimed that she was discriminated against for her disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act after her contract was not renewed due to her diagnosis of breast cancer and the request for time off to complete needed surgery and treatment. The school similarly claimed the teacher’s poor performance led to the non-renewal of her contract.

Ministerial Exception

The Court, in a prior case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, held that religious institutions have a First Amendment Right to freedom from state interference in matters involving church government, faith, and religious doctrine. The Court was barred from interfering in the schools’ decisions not to renew the employment contracts based on the ministerial exception.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito stated that 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 teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow. The teachers did not have formal religious titles or training but were required to teach Catholic doctrine and other subjects.

The Supreme Court applied the ministerial exception standard and argued that teachers were expected to help the students carry out their religious mission and educate students in the Catholic faith, which was ministerial in nature. Because the teachers carried out the school’s mission of inculcating Catholic religious teachings, even though they did not have official ministerial titles, they were subjected to the ministerial exception.

The Dissent

Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that the Court unfairly expanded the ruling of Hosanna-Tabor beyond its narrow application in the past. The Justices warned that the majority holding essentially permits religious entities freedom to make employment decisions without fear of litigation based on discrimination, despite acting in such a manner. Religious schools facing discrimination-based lawsuits have more flexibility in hiring and termination decisions based on the First Amendment interpretations these recent Supreme Court decisions have provided.

The legal team at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser has successfully defended schools in Title VII claims alleging discrimination. For an immediate consultation with a member of our legal team, please contact us online or call us at 484-318-7106. Our offices are located in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and we provide legal services throughout Philadelphia, Chester County, and New Jersey.