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Supreme Court Considers Ministerial Exception for Religious Employers

Two cases before the United States Supreme Court, St. James School v. Biel (19-348) and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru (19-267), seek review of Ninth Circuit decisions addressing the First Amendment’s ministerial exception.

In St. James School v. Biel, the fifth-grade teacher at a Catholic school who taught all subjects, including religion, was diagnosed with breast cancer six months after receiving a positive teaching evaluation. She told the school she needed to take time off for treatment and several weeks later, the school informed her that it would not renew her contract for the next academic year because her “classroom management” was “not strict” and that it was unfair to the students to have two different teachers during the school year. She filed a suit alleging disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The district court granted summary judgment to the school, finding that the First Amendment’s ministerial exception to generally applicable employment laws barred her claims. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed summary judgment.

In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, another Catholic school teacher brought a claim under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The Ninth Circuit reversed summary judgment in favor of the school and the district court’s conclusion that the employee was a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception. The Court reasoned that this employee’s formal title of “teacher” was secular as she had no religious credential, training, or ministerial background, and “did not hold herself out to the public as a religious leader or minister.”

On May 11, 2020, the Supreme Court heard consolidated oral argument in the cases, which present the question of whether the religion clauses found in the First Amendment bar civil courts from adjudicating employment discrimination claims that employees bring against their religious employers when those employees have purportedly “carried out important religious functions.”