Supreme Court Rules Job Discrimination Laws Don’t Protect Church-School Teachers

July 9, 2020by David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
The Supreme Court on Wednesday restricted teachers who work at church-run schools from filing discrimination claims against their employers, ruling that the Constitution's protection for religious liberty exempts church schools from state and federal anti-discrimination laws. (Ihsanyildizli/E+/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday banned teachers who work at church-run schools from filing discrimination lawsuits against their employers, ruling that the Constitution’s protection for religious liberty exempts church schools from state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

The justices, by a 7-2 vote, shielded two Catholic elementary schools in Los Angeles County from discrimination claims by two teachers who complained they were unjustly fired, one due to an illness and the other due to age.

The court found that since such schools are part of a church’s religious mission, the government may not interfere with decisions about hiring, supervision and firing of teachers.

The decision effectively closes the courthouse door to tens of thousands of teachers nationwide in religious and parochial schools who encounter workplace discrimination based on their gender, age, disability or sexual orientation that would otherwise be impermissible. It is also written broadly enough that it could include many other types of workers at the schools, such as counselors, nurses, coaches and office workers.

In the past, the Supreme Court has recognized an implied “ministerial exemption” that shields churches, synagogues or other religious bodies from being sued by priests, pastors and other ministers. The issue in the pair of cases from Southern California was whether that exemption extended more broadly to teachers in a church-run school whose primary duty was not necessarily religious instruction.

“The First Amendment protects the right of religious institutions to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority in Our Lady of Guadalupe School vs. Morrissey-Berru.

“The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission,” he continued. “Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

Kristen Biel was a fifth-grade teacher at St. James School in Torrance, in Los Angeles County, whose teaching contract was canceled shortly after she told the principal she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She later sued under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which protects employees from discrimination based solely on a disease like cancer. She died last year, but her husband, Darryl Biel, maintained the suit.

Agnes Morrissey-Berru had taught fifth grade at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Hermosa Beach, also in Los Angeles County, for decades when the principal suggested she might want to retire. She refused, and her teaching contract was not renewed. She then sued, alleging age discrimination.

Lawyers for the Catholic Archdiocese said the suits should be dismissed, citing the ministerial exception recognized by the high court. Two federal district judges agreed, but the 9th Circuit Court cleared both suits to proceed, ruling that neither teacher was a religious leader at school.

In dissent, Sotomayor called the court’s ruling “simplistic” because it allows a church to decide which of its employees are central to its religious mission and therefore not covered by anti-discrimination laws.

“Even if the teachers were not Catholic, and even if they were forbidden to participate in the church’s sacramental worship, they would nonetheless be ‘ministers’ of the Catholic faith simply because of their supervisory role over students in a religious school. That stretches the law and logic past their breaking points,” she said.

“The court’s conclusion portends grave consequences. Thousands of Catholic teachers may lose employment-law protections because of today’s outcome. Other sources tally over a hundred thousand secular teachers whose rights are at risk. And that says nothing of the rights of countless coaches, camp counselors, nurses, social-service workers, in-house lawyers, media-relations personnel, and many others who work for religious institutions. All these employees could be subject to discrimination for reasons completely irrelevant to their employers’ religious tenets.”

It was the third major win for a religious liberty claim in a week.

In a Montana case, the justices ruled that parents who send their children to church-run schools have a right to the same state subsidies or tuition grants afforded to other private schools. There, the court said the Constitution required equal treatment for religion, overriding state constitutions that barred any taxpayer money from going to religious institutions.

And also Wednesday, the justices agreed with the Trump administration and Catholic charities that employers with religious or moral objections to birth control have a right to be exempted from the part of the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” that requires them to provide contraceptives to their female employees.

In the case involving Catholic school teachers, the court rejected the notion of equal treatment for religion — central to the Montana decision — when it came to churches as employers. Instead, religious employers were given a special shield from federal discrimination laws.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles welcomed the ruling. “Religious schools play an integral role in passing the faith to the next generation of believers,” said Adrian Alarcon, spokesperson for Los Angeles Catholic Schools. “We are grateful that the Supreme Court recognized faith groups must be free to make their own decisions about who should be entrusted with these essential duties.”

“Today is a huge win for religious schools of all faith traditions,” said Eric Rassbach, a lawyer for the Becket Fund, who argued the case. “The last thing government officials should do is decide who is authorized to teach Catholicism to Catholics or Judaism to Jews.”

Rachel Laser, president of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the decision “demonstrates how the Supreme Court continues to redefine religious freedom — twisting what is meant to be a shield that protects us into a sword to harm others. The court elevates a distorted notion of religious freedom over fundamental civil rights.”

———

©2020 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Employment

Spanberger Secures $1.2 Million for Virginia Health Workforce Development
Employment
Spanberger Secures $1.2 Million for Virginia Health Workforce Development
August 10, 2020
by Reece Nations

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., announced Monday the acquisition of $1.2 million in federal grant funds for the Virginia Health Workforce Development Authority’s recruitment efforts, continuing education and health care workforce development. The VHWDA grant will be issued to the organization’s network of Area Health Education Centers,... Read More

States Wary of Trump’s Move for Them to Kick in on Federal Aid
Economy
States Wary of Trump’s Move for Them to Kick in on Federal Aid

A day after President Donald Trump took executive action to offer $400 per week in supplemental unemployment benefits, including 25% he said should be kicked in from state coffers, governors are pushing back. The leaders of states including New York and Michigan said Trump’s plan ignores... Read More

Drop in US Jobless Claims Offers Hope for Battered Economy
Employment
Drop in US Jobless Claims Offers Hope for Battered Economy

WASHINGTON — Applications for U.S. unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week to the lowest since March, offering a ray of hope for an economy still battered by the pandemic. Initial jobless claims in regular state programs fell by 249,000 to 1.19 million in the week ended... Read More

Chances Waning for Unemployment Relief for Millions as Talks Sputter
Economy
Chances Waning for Unemployment Relief for Millions as Talks Sputter

WASHINGTON — Prospects for a quick deal to extend supplemental unemployment benefits and other stimulus for an economy still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic have taken a sharp turn for the worse, leaving millions of Americans in the lurch a week after many benefits expired. The... Read More

1.2 Million Seek Jobless Aid After $600 Federal Check Ends
Employment
1.2 Million Seek Jobless Aid After $600 Federal Check Ends

WASHINGTON (AP) — Nearly 1.2 million laid-off Americans applied for state unemployment benefits last week, evidence that the coronavirus keeps forcing companies to slash jobs just as a critical $600 weekly federal jobless payment has expired. The Labor Department’s report Thursday marked the 20th straight week... Read More

Beyer, Kilmer Bill Offers Peace of Mind to Jobless Americans
Congress
Beyer, Kilmer Bill Offers Peace of Mind to Jobless Americans
July 27, 2020
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON - Americans left jobless due to the COVID-19 pandemic could soon gain greater economic peace of mind thanks to a bill introduced Monday by Reps. Don Beyer, D-Va., and Derek Kilmer, D-Wash. The Worker Relief and Security Act ties expanded unemployment benefits to the current... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top