U.S. Supreme Court to Rule on Employment Discrimination at Church-Run Schools

The U.S. Supreme Court is slated to consider how federal employment discrimination laws should be applied to church-run schools. Los Angeles employment discrimination lawyer

Although our Los Angeles employment discrimination attorneys can for certain how the verdict will go, but we do know that in recent cases weighing the church-and-state relationship, the court has tended recently to side with religious groups.

The cases that the court heart last month deal with another aspect of this same divide: The role the government can or should play in the regulation of religious institutions, particularly if they are receiving taxpayer funding. Both cases were filed by teachers in California Catholic schools accused of employment discrimination. The schools insist that the teachers’ positions fall under the court-established “ministerial exception” to job discrimination. The court will be asked to consider just how broad that exception really is and how to balance the competing interests of shielding workers from discrimination and steering clear of meddling in the affairs of religious organizations.

What is the Ministerial Exception? 

The ministerial exception stems from a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision intended to protect freedom of religion by exempting religious institutions from anti-discrimination laws in the hiring of certain employees. The idea is that religious ministries should have the right, under the First Amendment, to choose their own religious ministers without the interference from the government.

Still, the ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC didn’t answer all questions relative to how the doctrine should operate. Specifically:

  • How do we define what a religious ministry is?
  • How do we determine who is a religious minister?
  • What types of government interference are not allowed?

For example: Is a Catholic school teacher a “minister” even if he has no formal religious training or any specifically religious title? Would a Muslim day school be considered a “ministry” if it receives government funding and accepts non-Muslim students?

These are the sorts of issues before the court in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Darryl Biel.

In the Hosanna-Tabor case, plaintiff was a teacher who had religious training and whom the school considered a minister. She was reportedly fired for pursuing a disability discrimination claim against her employer related to her narcolepsy. The Supreme Court ruled that because she was subject to the ministerial exception, she wasn’t allowed to sue.

The new cases involve plaintiffs who didn’t have any formal training or titles, though they did teach religious doctrine as one of many subjects. One of them is suing for disability discrimination relating to her breast cancer and the other is suing for age discrimination. In both cases, federal trial judges dismissed the claims, finding the ministerial exception was applicable and protected the schools. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed both of those rulings, finding the teachers weren’t ministers as established by the earlier ruling, as neither they nor their employers considered them so nor did their titles reflect that. In fact, the appellate court held that the title of “teacher” is an inherently secular one.

However, nine of the Ninth Circuit’s judges wrote dissenting opinions in one of those cases, arguing the three-judge panel was mistaken in finding more merit with the plaintiff’s title as opposed to the substance of her day-to-day job.

Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.

Additional Resources:

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC2012, U.S. Supreme Court