Supreme Court extends exemption of religious schools from civil rights laws


The United States Supreme Court today ruled that two elementary school teachers in religious schools could not pursue their allegations of discrimination based on age and disability. The court found that employees such as teachers in senior positions cannot sue their employers because of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clauses.

In Our Lady of Guadalupe School c. Morrissey-Berru, the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision written by Judge Samuel Alito Jr. that although teachers were not given the title of minister, they fell under the so-called ministerial exception to anti-discrimination laws.

“Religious education and student training is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers that schools rely on to do this work is at the heart of their mission, “the court said. noted. “A judicial review of how religious schools discharge these responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not condone. “

School administrators in the consolidated court case both believed that the two plaintiffs had a sufficient understanding of Catholicism to teach their students, and the judges should not question the schools’ own accreditation requirements, wrote the court. The two teachers presented themselves as authorities in matters of religion to their students and, by extension, to the families of the students, he added.

The fact that one of the teachers was not a practicing Catholic did not decide the outcome of the case. “Accepting this argument would force the courts to address the sensitive issue of what it means to be a practicing member of a faith, and religious employers would be placed in an impossible position,” the court wrote. “It is not clear how religious groups could control whether an employee complies with all religious obligations when not at work.”


In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote: “The protection by the First Amendment of employment decisions of religious organizations is not limited to members of the clergy or others in positions similar to that of a minister.” .

He added: “Such protection extends to the laity, provided that they are charged with fulfilling the religious mission of the organization. … This deference is necessary because, as the court rightly observes, judges lack the requisite understanding and appreciation of the role played by anyone who plays a particular role in each religious tradition. What qualifies as ministerial is an inherently theological question, and therefore a question that cannot be resolved by civil courts through legal analysis. “


In a dissent joined by Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Judge Sonia Sotomayor said the court had issued a new test for the ministerial exception: whether a church believes its employees play an important religious role. “Because this simplistic approach has no legal basis and deprives thousands of teachers of their legal protections, I respectfully disagree,” she wrote.

By virtue of a prior decision, Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court described the four factors that had to be considered in determining whether a teacher was employed in a religious school as a minister:

  • Official title of the teacher.
  • The substance reflected in this title.
  • Personal use of this title by the teacher.
  • The important religious functions that the teacher fulfilled for the religious institution.

Hosanna-TaborThe Church’s well-balanced approach ensured that a church could not categorically ignore generally applicable anti-discrimination laws for non-religious reasons, “the dissent said. Explaining, one cannot help but conclude that the court just exchanged a legal analysis for a tampon, “Sotomayor wrote.

She added, “By expanding the ministerial exception far beyond its historical narrowness, the court is overturning the carefully crafted exemptions by Congress for religious employers.

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Jonathan Segal, an attorney for Duane Morris in Philadelphia and New York, said the Supreme Court had extended the standard for ministerial exception beyond the Hosanna-Tabor standard, but he does not think the court defined the ministerial exception as broadly as the dissent suggests.

Nonetheless, David Barron, an attorney for Cozen O’Connor, said today’s ruling “is particularly important to religious schools because of recent opinion on this term concluding that Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964]The prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex should be interpreted broadly to include sexual orientation and transgender status. “

Barron added: “The move sparked debate over the extent to which religious schools should accommodate teachers or other staff whose lifestyles conflicted with the teachings of the religious institution. Many of these concerns – rightly or wrongly – hold that teachers involved in religious education are largely exempt from anti-discrimination laws. ”

Limits of the decision

There may be limits to the court’s decision, Segal warned.

He did not interpret the decision to mean that all teachers in religious schools are necessarily covered by the ministerial exception. Instead, the court looked at what an employee does and focused less on their title, Segal said.

So a math teacher who only teaches math in a religious school might not be covered, while another math teacher who regularly leads the class in prayer might be. If someone’s role is entirely secular, such as that of an accountant or janitor, the application of the exception would be more difficult.

Thus, anyone who represents the religious school in public would undoubtedly be covered. Thus, an executive assistant to a school principal could be covered.

Even if the ministerial exception applies, Segal said religious schools might consider two factors. First, they should assess whether, if they apply the ministerial exemption generally, they have enough candidates to meet the religious requirements. Second, even if they apply the exception, religious organizations might consider not banning applicants based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Instead, organizations could tell individuals to follow their beliefs about marriage in the classroom and not discuss their sexual orientation or gender identity with students or employees.


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