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U.S. Supreme Court Shields Religious Schools from Discrimination Claims

The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of two religious schools seeking to avoid employment discrimination claims by former teachers. Both teachers sued their former employers for discrimination (one based on age, the other based on disability). At issue was the application of the “ministerial exception” that protects religious employers from certain discrimination lawsuits brought against them by employees. The 7-2 decision was authored by Justice Alito, who was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. 

The teachers argued they were not ministers under the 2012 Supreme Court precedent that established the ministerial exception, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC. In that case, the Supreme Court outlined four factors for lower courts to consider when weighing whether an employee qualifies as a minister for purposes of the exception—1) formal religious title, 2) whether the title reflected ministerial training, 3) whether the employee presented herself as a minister, and 4) whether the employee’s responsibilities include “important religious functions.” The 9th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the teachers, allowing them to move forward with their lawsuits. The 9th Circuit reasoned that, while the teachers’ work did involve teaching religion, they did not satisfy the established criteria required for the exception to apply. The schools appealed to the Supreme Court, requesting reversal of the lower court decisions.

In his majority opinion, Alito wrote that the Hosanna-Tabor decision had not created a “rigid formula” for determining when the ministerial exception applies, but rather had “identified circumstances that we found relevant in that case.” In finding that the ministerial exception was applicable, Alito stated, “The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission.” Sotomayor wrote the dissent, joined by Ginsburg, stating that the majority’s “simplistic approach has no basis in law and strips thousands of schoolteachers of their legal protections.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Agnes Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267, and St. James School v. Darryl Biel, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Kristen Biel, No. 19-348.