Thursday, July 9, 2020

Supreme Court holds Catholic school teachers cannot sue for disability or age discrimination

The Supreme Court has ruled that teachers who work at Catholic schools cannot sue for employment discrimination under Title VII and other civil rights laws. This case expands the "ministerial exception" that the Court first recognized in 2012.

The case is Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, issued on July 8. This is a two-plaintiff case involving separate lawsuits that the Court consolidated for purposes of this appeal. In 2012, the Court ruled in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), that the First Amendment (which protects the free exercise of religion) prohibits a court from entertaining an employment discrimination claim when the plaintiff takes on certain responsibilities that will advance the religious agenda of the employer. There is no rigid formula for determining whether the plaintiff falls within the ministerial exception, and thus far the only cases the Supreme Court has resolved in this area involve plaintiff-teachers responsible for imparting certain religious principles to their students.

The idea behind the ministerial exception is that "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.'” The 7-2 majority outlines what appears to be a bright-line rule in teacher discrimination cases:

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. 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.
Writing for the majority, Justice Alito states, "This does not mean that religious institutions enjoy a general immunity from secular laws, but it does protect their autonomy with respect to internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission. And a component of this autonomy is the selection of the individuals who play certain key roles." It looks like anyone who teaches at a religious school cannot sue for employment discrimination, particularly if they have to impart religious doctrine to the students. Plaintiffs lose this case because they were required to teach, among other things, religious doctrine. "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 the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow."

Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissent. Justice Sotomayor accuses the majority of improperly expanding the ministerial exception since the teachers in this case primarily taught secular subjects, lacked substantial religious titles and training, and were not even required to be Catholic. As the dissenters see it, the majority reduces the inquiry to a simple test: "whether a church thinks its employees play an important religious role." They call that a "simplistic approach" that "has no basis in law and strips thousands of schoolteachers of their legal protections."

The breadth of the ministerial exception means that even though these two plaintiffs sued over disability discrimination and age discrimination, and the employers did not assert any religious-based defense to the lawsuits, the plaintiff still cannot sue. So the ministerial exception does not simply ask whether the courts have to delve into religious doctrine or principles in determining whether the plaintiff was properly terminated (or denied a position). As Justice Sotomayor notes,

When it applies, the exception is extraordinarily potent: It gives an employer free rein to discriminate because of race, sex, pregnancy, age, disability, or other traits protected by law when selecting or firing their “ministers,”even when the discrimination is wholly unrelated to the employer’s religious beliefs or practices. That is, an employer need not cite or possess a religious reason at all; the ministerial exception even condones animus.

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