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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.

Guidelines to Ensure Title IX Compliance

Title IX is a federal civil rights law that was enacted in 1972 to prevent gender-based discrimination in educational programs that receive federal financial aid.  Schools are subjected to this law and need to ensure that all school activities and programs are compliant. However, many schools are unaware of the law and the need to implement compliance policies in their schools. Schools can incur litigation costs averaging thousands of dollars if they violated the law. It is important for schools to create policies and practices to ensure compliance to avoid unnecessary litigation costs.

Educators need to know that Title IX requires that they provide equal opportunities to all students who engage in school-related activities, including online and school-based electronic learning environments.

Policies and Guidelines for Educators

All schools should strive to prevent discrimination in any school-related activity. School administrators and principals can also prepare their schools by implementing the following practices:

  • Appoint a Title IX Coordinator. Appointing a member of the staff as the Title IX coordinator in the school is a good practice. One staff member is designated and responsible for understanding and being apprised of the law. It is important to appoint someone who is fair, balanced, and unbiased.

This individual can ensure that all other staff members are also educated in the law. They can arrange regular training sessions, invite speakers to educate staff, and check in on all school-sponsored activities to make sure they are compliant. This person can also guide others in best practices and assist parents in their complaints.

  • Continually Educate Staff on the Law. Since there is a lack of awareness of the law, schools should make it a practice to hold workshops and educational sessions on the law periodically. This law can have broad effects as gender discrimination can include gender identification, sexual identification, sexual orientation, binary gender, bullying, and harassment. Because the law can influence a broad range of behavior, periodic training sessions should prevent inadvertent acts that may be discriminatory.
  • School culture. Schools should instill a culture and environment that respects gender equality. They should also create awareness amongst all stakeholders in the community, and strive to diminish them.
  • Schools should have a clear procedure for notifications of complaints and how to address them. Schools should also respond to complaints and make investigations of the claims immediately.

Guidance for Parents

Parents who believe that their child was subjected to discrimination based on gender should notify their school administration. Parents can start by requesting that the school identify their Title IX coordinator. They can also review school policies or request the handbook to ascertain school policies with regard to discrimination. If the school does not respond adequately, parents should reach out to the school district or superintendent. If no one responds, parents can notify the public through media outlets and or file a formal complaint.

The education lawyers at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser are experienced in all aspects of law related to schools and educational institutions. Our counsel has vast experience from advising schools on policies and practices to effective representation in litigation. For legal representation on education-related matters, please contact us online or call us at 484-318-7106. Located in West Chester, Pennsylvania, we serve clients throughout Chester County and Philadelphia.

Recent Title IX Proposals from Education Department

Education law lawyers review the changes to Title IX proposals from the education department.Title IX was enacted in 1972 to ban discrimination based on sex in those schools receiving Federal financial assistance (20 U.S.C. 1681(a)). For a party to prevail in a Title IX case, the school must have actual knowledge of the discrimination and be deliberately indifferent to it.

In addition, the harassment must be so severe and pervasive that it effectively denies the aggrieved student(s) access to an education.

Addressing Sexual Harassment in Schools

A relatively recent application of Title IX has been to address gender-based discrimination in schools, including sexual harassment and assault, harassment based on gender identity, and harassment based on non-conformance with stereotypical gender norms.

Victims are often intimidated into silence. They may do poorly in school or even drop out if the stress of maintaining that silence is too great.

Part of that intimidation arises from the investigative process. Victims weigh the pain of remaining silent against the prospect of having to prove the incident and face their attacker; they often choose silence.

There are statistical signs that failing to address sexual violence, including harassment, hurts school performance. On the other hand, when efforts are made to prevent and punish violations, measures of performance show improved individual and school-wide academic outcomes.

The Obama Administration Approach

The Obama administration sought to create a process more supportive of victims. A 2011 “Dear Colleagues Letter” sent to school administrations nationwide urged them to better investigate reports of sexual violence. The guidance specifically directed schools to evaluate cases using the “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof, which is used to determine other civil rights violations, including discrimination. This is a lesser standard than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal proceedings.

Advocates for victims approved of the change and believed they would help more victims of sexual violence come forward. Scholars were more equivocal, with some arguing the letter represented administrative overreaching, and others raising concerns that the accused were being unfairly disadvantaged.

Some school administrators complained the procedures were too complex and burdensome.

The Trump Administration Approach

Education Secretary DeVos has recently rescinded the guidance letter and proposed new rules to replace it. The rules would essentially eliminate prior Obama administration efforts to support victims.

Changes include:

  • Redefine sexual harassment that schools have to investigate from unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature to unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, that it effectively denies a person equal access to the recipient’s education program or activity.
  • Changing the standard of proof so that schools would no longer be required to use the lesser standard. Schools would be given the option to require evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in order to find in favor of the accuser.
  • Changing the investigative proceeding from one that discouraged schools from directly cross-examining the accuser, to one that requires schools to allow direct cross-examination.
  • Changing the investigation from a formal one to allowing mediation and other informal procedures to address reports of sexual harassment.

Education law lawyers at The MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser provide skilled representation to public and private entities regarding Title IX compliance. We offer legal advice, along with practical guidance on preparing compliant policies and training programs. Contact us at 484-318-7106 or complete our online form for more information. Our West Chester, Pennsylvania office serves clients in the greater Philadelphia area.