Supreme Court Delivers Clear Victory to Religious Schools
The U.S. Supreme Court today issued its long-awaited decision in two cases that tested whether Catholic School teachers may pursue employment discrimination claims against the schools. The Court held in a 7-2 ruling that the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses bar the lawsuits. The decision offers religious schools a compelling and easily applied defense against employment discrimination claims by teachers. While the decision’s significance to discrimination claims filed by other categories of ministry employees is less direct, it sweepingly protects the right of religious groups to conduct their internal affairs, including many employment
decisions, free from government interference.
The plaintiffs were primary school teachers who did not have their contracts renewed. One sued for age discrimination, the other for disability discrimination. The schools in both cases contended that they declined to review the teaching contracts due to poor performance, such as the failure to observe or inability to implement the required classroom curriculum. After the U.S. Court of Appeals held that the so-called ministerial exception did not protect the schools from the lawsuits, the schools appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Court previously ruled in the well-known Hosanna-Tabor case that the ministerial exception blocks “ministers” working for a “religious group” from suing for employment discrimination. However, in doing so, the Court declined to adopt a “rigid test” for determining who qualifies as a minister. Although Hosanna-Tabor itself held that the ministerial exception barred a teacher from suing the religious school that had employed her, that loose end led to diverging court rulings on whether religious schoolteachers are ministers. The Court has now provided clarity on this question.
The Court’s majority opinion ended with this guidance: “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.”
The opinion first focused on the independence of religious institutions in matters of “faith and doctrine,” which the Constitution protects from government intrusion. That independence is closely linked to independence in what the Court
previously termed matters of church government. Specifically, while religious institutions do not have a general immunity from secular laws, the Constitution does protect their autonomy with respect to internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission. From this the Court has derived the ministerial exception: “[A] component of this autonomy is the selection of the individuals who play certain key roles. …[C]ourts are bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions.”
The opinion makes clear that whether an employee holds a job title of "minister" does not dictate whether the ministerial exception applies. Some faiths
consider many religious roles to be ministerial, while others do not use that term. According to the Court: “What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does.”
The Court went on to state:
- [I]mplicit in the Hosanna-Tabor decision 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. Teachers, in other words, have a responsibility to transmit the faith to the next generation.
- In all of the major faiths, religious education is important. There is a close connection that religious institutions draw between their central purpose and educating the young in the faith.
- The ministerial exception may apply to employees even if they are not “practicing” members of the religion. The Court addressed this point because the plaintiff in one of the cases denied that she was a practicing
Catholic. According to the Court: “[I]n hiring a teacher to provide religious instruction, a religious school is very likely to try to select a person who meets this requirement, but insisting on this as a necessary condition would create a host of problems. [D]etermining whether a person is a “co-religionist” will not always be easy.”
Applying the ministerial exception to the cases before it, the Court observed:
- The teachers performed vital religious duties. Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught, and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility.
- As elementary school teachers responsible for providing instruction in all subjects, including religion, they were the members of the school staff who were entrusted most directly with the responsibility of educating their students in the faith. And not only were they obligated to provide instruction about the Catholic faith, they were also expected to guide their students, by word and deed, toward the
goal of living their lives in accordance with the faith.
The Court emphasized that it was the school’s judgment (not the teachers’ religious practices) that deserved consideration. “The schools in question here thought that [the teachers] had a sufficient understanding of Catholicism to teach their students, and judges have no warrant to second-guess that judgment or to impose their own credentialing requirements.”
Keep in mind that the ministerial exception applies regardless of the reason the employer disciplined or discharged a teacher or other “minister.” The exception is not limited to instances in which the employer and employee have a “religious” disagreement or, in
the case of a school, whether the teacher fails to sufficiently promote religious ideals in word and deed. In these two cases, the schools decided not to renew the teachers’ contracts because the schools thought that they were not properly implementing classroom curriculum—in one case, the curriculum on reading and writing.
Two justices dissented. Justices Sotomayor and Ginsberg believed that the Court's decision interprets the ministerial exception too broadly. For example, they focused on the fact that the teachers were elementary school teachers who did not have intensive academic religious instruction and that most of their schoolroom duties involved secular activities: “For the vast majority of class, they taught subjects like reading, writing,
spelling, grammar, vocabulary, math, science, social studies, and geography. In so doing, both were like any public school teacher in California, subject to the same statewide curriculum guidelines.” At bottom, the dissenting justices fretted that the ministerial exception would deprive too many employees of the protection of federal and state employment laws.
Religious schools may now rest easy that their employment decisions about teachers cannot be challenged as discriminatory in courts. The First Amendment does not allow "judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher" where the teacher has responsibility to educate and form students in the school's faith.
If you have any questions about this development, please contact us.
This summary is provided as an informational tool. It is not intended to be and should not be considered legal advice, and receipt of this information does not establish an attorney-client relationship.