The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that some employees of religious schools, social service centers and hospitals will not be allowed to sue for employment discrimination, due to the ministerial exception. The 7-2 decision (with two liberal justices siding with the conservative majority) pointed to a unanimous ruling eight years ago that found “ministers” could not sue churches for employment discrimination.
But this ruling not only solidified that previous ruling, it expanded the protections these companies have against nondiscrimination litigation. The ministerial exception holds that the First Amendment protects churches and other religious organizations from government interference in employment decisions of “ministers” because, as Chief Justice John Roberts concluded, that would strip the church over control of those who personify its beliefs. But the question the court didn’t answer in 2012 was who, exactly, was a minister? Here, the majority decided that teachers are among those who can be considered”ministers,” in turn opening the door for countless other employees.
Los Angeles employment discrimination lawyers recognize that this was a significant blow to the hundreds of thousands of employees who work for these organizations (by some estimates, there are more than 300,000 private school teachers alone).
Effectively, it appears the court has allowed these institutions to skirt civil rights laws applicable to most other employers, though supporters of the ruling deny this.
In dissenting, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote that while teachers at the two Catholic school defendants did teach religion on some days of their work week, this did not automatically make them into ministers. In fact, the teachers weren’t even required to be a member of the faith at the school at which they taught. They primarily taught secular subjects (English, math, geography, etc.) and didn’t have any significant religious training or titles.
Justice Samuel Alito, however, insisted that religious institutions aren’t broadly immune from secular laws, but that they are protected as far as “internal management decisions” go. But of course, that’s still a pretty broad degree of protection, especially if you are an employee suing for employment discrimination. They can effectively hire and fire “teachers and messengers of faith” without court interference.
Here, the teachers at the heart of these two cases against religious schools technically were not given the titles of “minister.” However, according to Alito they both performed “vital religious duties” with regularity. These included praying with students, attending mass, teaching religious studies and getting students ready to participate in other religious activities.
One of the plaintiffs, a substitute teacher at a California Catholic school, said the school used the pretext of performance issues to discriminate against her on the basis of age, a violation of Title VII. Another plaintiff, who taught fifth grade at another Catholic school, said she was fired after informing the principal she needed time off to undergo breast cancer treatment. The school cited “classroom management,” which she too insisted was a pretext in her Americans With Disabilities Act lawsuit. She has since passed away. Both schools argued the teachers were “ministers,” and thus they could not be held accountable for employment discrimination.
If you believe you have been discriminated against at work in Los Angeles, we can help.