The U.S. Supreme Court handed private religious schools a major victory Wednesday, broadening the so-called ministerial exception and ruling they can hire and fire employees without being governed by anti-discrimination laws.
At issue were teachers at two separate Catholic schools who sued after their contracts were not renewed for reasons the schools said were related to performance. One teacher, though, alleged age discrimination, and the other alleged she was released because she asked for time off for a medical procedure. Both sued.
The ministerial exception is a legal doctrine that allows religious institutions to hire and fire employees without being governed by anti-discrimination laws. The U.S. Ninth Court of Appeals sided with the teachers, ruling they were covered by anti-discrimination because they weren’t ministers and had no ministerial background.
But the Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, said the schools were not bound by non-discrimination laws. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion.
The ruling could impact future cases related to sexual orientation and gender identity, allowing Christian schools to dismiss – for example – a teacher who comes out as LGBT.
The ministerial exception, Alito ruled, is broad. An employer doesn’t have to wear the title “minister” to be exempted from non-discrimination laws, Alito wrote.
“What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does,” he wrote.
Alito referenced a previous ministerial exception case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.
“And implicit in our decision in Hosanna-Tabor was a recognition that educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school,” Alito wrote.
The two teachers’ titles “did not include the term ‘minister,’ and they had less formal religious training, but their core responsibilities as teachers of religion were essentially the same,” Alito wrote.
“And both their schools expressly saw them as playing a vital part in carrying out the mission of the church, and the schools’ definition and explanation of their roles is important,” Alito added. “In a country with the religious diversity of the United States, judges cannot be expected to have a complete understanding and appreciation of the role played by every person who performs a particular role in every religious tradition. A religious institution’s explanation of the role of such employees in the life of the religion in question is important.
“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,” Alito concluded.
Joining Alito in the majority were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
“This sweeping result is profoundly unfair,” Sotomayor wrote in a dissenting opinion. “The Court is not only wrong on the facts, but its error also risks upending antidiscrimination protections for many employees of religious entities.”
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the two Catholic schools at the center of the cases, applauded the decision.
“Today is a huge win for religious schools of all faith traditions,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The last thing government officials should do is decide who is authorized to teach Catholicism to Catholics or Judaism to Jews. We are glad the Court has resoundingly reaffirmed that churches and synagogues, not government, control who teaches kids about God.”
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Brian PIrwin
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.