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Tuesday, July 21, 2020

US Supreme Court Decides Religious Exemptions for Certain Teachers

On July 8, the US Supreme Court in Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru ruled that religious employers are given wide latitude as to religious exemptions for their employees, which exempted employees are thereby prohibited from filing discrimination claims under federal law. The Court’s holding means that the “ministerial exemption” applies to a much broader group of employees than just ordained ministers or formally titled religious leaders.

Listen to US Supreme Court oral arguments in in Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru here

In Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru, the Court held in a 7-2 decision that the “ministerial exception” is given a broad interpretation and bars employees who hold certain positions within religious schools and other institutions from filing lawsuits against their employer. The Court disagreed with a lower court, a Ninth Circuit Court ruling, and it declined to impose a rigid calculation for determining when the ministerial exemption applies to employees of a religious institution. The Supreme Court ruled that it was not determinative whether not the employee was an actual ordained minister. Instead the US Supreme Court held that that whether an employee has the title of “minister” or has some other formal religious leader tile is not the only thing to be considered as to whether the religious exemption applies.

Background of the Teachers

Agnes Morrissey-Berru taught at Our Lady of Guadalupe School.  Kristen Biel taught at St. James School. Both teachers were employed under nearly identical employment agreements that identified the schools’ mission was to develop and promote a Catholic School faith and which imposed commitments regarding religious instruction, worship, and personal modeling of the faith. Their employment agreements explained that teachers’ performance would be reviewed on a religious basis.

Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Biel were each required to comply with their employer’s faculty handbook, which set out similar expectations. Each teacher taught religion in the classroom. Each worshiped with her students. Each prayed with her students. Both teachers had their employment terminated by the schools and thereafter sued the schools.

Previously, a lower court, the Ninth Circuit, reasoned teachers did not embody that type of minister or religious leadership role when they taught religion from a book. 

The Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision, reasoning that while the teachers in question were not ordained ministers, they played a significant role in carrying out the religious mission of their employer. They did teach religion to students; the Court ruled that the ministerial exception therefore applied.

The Court found that these two elementary Roman Catholic school teachers in Los Angeles had teaching responsibilities and were employed under agreements which had defined the schools’ mission to be to specifically develop and promote a Catholic faith in their students.

Furthermore, their employment agreements imposed commitments upon them regarding religious instruction by the teachers and personal modeling of the Roman Catholic faith. The court found that their employment agreement explained that the teachers’ performance would be reviewed on those bases.

The US Supreme Court did not rely on any one particular factor. It relied on a number of factors in coming to its decision, writing that whether an employee has the title of “minister” or other religious leader title is not alone enough to determine whether the ministerial exemption applies.The Court said not just one factor but variety of factors should be considered in determining whether an employee’s employment falls within the ministerial exception A termination which factors in one case did not mean that it must be met in all other cases. The Court reasoned what mattered was what the employee actually does on her job, the real day-to-day duties irrespective to the teacher’s title, and how it relates to the religious education of the students.

The Court found abundant evidence in the record that Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Biel both performed essential religious duties. They were directed to educate their students in the Catholic faith and guide their students to live in accordance with that faith. Their titles did not include the term "minister" but the employer, their schools, saw them as playing a vital role in carrying out the church's mission. As stated in the Court’s opinion, the plaintiffs’ employment agreements and faculty handbooks actually provided that the schools expected the plaintiffs to help the schools carry out their mission statement of educating and forming students in the Catholic faith. The schools evaluated their work to ensure they were fulfilling that responsibility. As elementary school teachers responsible for providing instruction in all subjects, including religion, they were the staff members who were entrusted most directly with the responsibility of educating their students in the Catholic faith. The employers also expected the teachers to guide their students by words and deeds, toward the goal of living their lives in accordance with the Catholic faith, although their titles did not include the term “minister,” The employers expressly saw them as playing a vital part in carrying out the church’s mission, developing faith. Both teachers attended Mass with their students, prayed with their students and prepared them for participation in other religious activities.

The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit decision, holding both the teachers’ suits were barred. Justice Samuel Alito writing for a seven-justice majority, said, “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.”

Applying that standard, the Court held the ministerial exception applied to the plaintiffs because their duties involved instructing their students on Catholic faith’s tenets. The Court held that the employment discrimination claims of these two school teachers at Catholic schools qualified for the religious exemption:

  • Although the teachers were not formal ministers not any formal religious title and had less religious training, this was not determinative alone,
  • That the purpose of formation as to religious education of students was the reason for the existence of private religious schools,
  • An employers’ selection and supervision of the employees upon whom the schools relied to impart religious training, were at the core of their mission.
  • Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharged those responsibilities would have undermined the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment did not tolerate.

What You Can Do

If you believe you were the target of illegal discrimination in the workplace resulting in termination or a refusal to rehire, it is important to consult with an aggressive and experienced employment attorney.

If you complained about such discrimination and your employer then retaliated against you, you may also have a claim for retaliation. If you believe you are being subjected to such unlawful workplace discrimination or retaliation, please contact Hope A. Lang, Attorney at Law today for a free consultation.

Hope A. Lang, Attorney at Law serves clients throughout New Jersey, including Bergen, Middlesex, Essex, Hudson, Monmouth, Ocean, Union, Camden, Passaic, and Morris Counties with locations in Southern, Central, and Northern NJ to meet with clients.



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