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Can Catholic Schools Discriminate? The U.S. Supreme Court is About to Weigh In.

discriminationCatholic Schools and Discrimination

The United States Supreme Court will review two decisions from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit involving the ministerial exception to federal employment discrimination law claims. On December 18, 2019, the Supreme Court granted petitions for a writ of certiorari in St. James School v. Biel and Our Lady of Gudadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, both decisions from the ninth circuit in which Catholic religious schools argued that the ministerial exception protected them from claims of discriminatory employment practices.

The Supreme Court articulated its initial position in the Court’s 2012 decision after review of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, 565 U.S. 171 (2012). The petitioning school had a policy under which its teaching staff was divided into two designations, “Lay” and “Called.” “Called” teachers were those trained in certain aspects of theology and given the title of “Minister of Religion” while “Lay” teachers were not required the complete this training. The school offered a teacher the opportunity to become a “Called” teacher, and she accepted, and then taught religious classes and led students in prayer until she took disability leave. She notified the principal when she was able to return from disability leave, and was informed that her position had been filled by a “Lay” teacher and she was asked to step down from her role as a “Called” teacher at the school. The Court ruled that cases brought by or on behalf of ministers against their churches alleging termination in violation of employment discrimination laws are barred by the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment. The Court did not, however, provide precise guidance on determining which employees of religious institutions can be considered ministers, instead articulating some factors that categorized the terminated teacher as a minister. These factors centered on the nature of her religious training, her position’s title evidencing a ministerial role, and the manner in which her employer and the employee herself held her out to be a minister. This has left substantial room for district and circuit courts to interpret the extent to which this exception is applicable to various employees of religious institutions.

In St. James School v. Biel the Court will address the 9th Circuit’s decision to reverse a District Court decision granting summary judgment to the defendant school. Biel was a teacher at the defendant school where she taught many classes, some of which involved religious instruction. Shortly after receiving a positive review of her work performance, Biel was diagnosed with breast cancer and informed her supervisor that she would require time off to undergo surgery and chemotherapy. Following this discussion, Biel was called in to another meeting where she was told her contract would not be reviewed due to dissatisfaction with her classroom management and performance. Biel brought suit under the ADA. The 9th Circuit examined the elements that the Supreme Court examined in Hosanna-Tabor to determine if an employee was a minister, including whether the employee was held out as a minister by the employer or herself, if the employee’s title reflected ministerial substance and training, and if the employee’s duties included important religious functions. Biel held no ministerial title and was not trained as a minister, indeed, the school’s argument hinged entirely on the notion that she provided religious instruction as part of the required curriculum, using course instruction from a workbook provided to her. The 9th Circuit decision states that the court would not read Hosanna-Tabor as providing blanket exception to federal employment law with respect to all employees who maintain both secular and religious duties in their employment but do not preach their employers beliefs, teach their employer’s faith, or carry out their employer’s mission to guide a religious organization.

In Our Lady of Gudadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru the plaintiff was also a teacher at a Catholic school who sued alleging age discrimination in violation of federal law. The District Court granted summary judgment to the defendant school finding that the plaintiff was a minister, having taught religious instruction at the school and that the school was protected by the ministerial exception. The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that the plaintiff had only taken a single course in religious studies, had sought no training or accreditation as a minister, and was not held out as a minister by the school or her own actions, and as such, she was not a minister under the Supreme Court’s articulation in Hosanna-Tabor.
The Supreme Court’s decision may provide guidance on the extent to which the ministerial exception can serve as a shield for religious organizations in circumventing federal employment discrimination laws, by providing greater instruction on the applicability of the term “minister” to employees who posses mixed secular and religious responsibilities, and are not explicitly employed as faith leaders within religious organizations. This guidance is lacking in the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor decision because the employee in that case specifically pursued religious training and instruction to receive a title tied to ministry within the religious institution that employed her.

If you have any inquires on religious discrimination in the workplace or feel that your rights in the workplace have been violated, please contact the New York Employment Lawyers at Borrelli & Associates, P.L.L.C. immediately to schedule a consultation.

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