U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS bars bias suits by teachers with faith duties at religious schools

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 Wednesday that courts cannot hear job bias claims by two Catholic schoolteachers who sued for alleged job discrimination.

Courts cannot intervene in employment disputes involving teachers at religious schools who are “entrusted with the responsibility of instructing their students in the faith,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote in the majority opinion.

One teacher sued for alleged age discrimination. The other, who has since died, alleged that the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to renew her contract after she revealed that she had breast cancer.

Alito said the schools were protected from suit by the First Amendment’s religion clauses.

The clauses provide that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Religious institutions don’t have a general immunity from secular laws, but they do have autonomy regarding internal management decisions that are essential to their central mission, Alito said. “And a component of this autonomy is the selection of the individuals who play certain key roles,” he added.

The very reason for the existence of most private religious schools is the “religious education and formation of students,” Alito said. “Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”

At issue in the cases was whether religious employers can be sued by employees who carry out important religious functions. The schools claimed that they are protected from suit under the “ministerial exception,” which holds that a religion can’t be held liable for its choice of ministers.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that a teacher at a religious school with the title of minister could not sue for job bias. The case was Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.

Alito said the Catholic schoolteachers in the two new cases before the court fell within the Hosanna-Tabor rule, even though they had less religious training than the Hosanna-Tabor teacher and they did not have the minister title.

“What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does,” Alito said. “And implicit in our decision in Hosanna-Tabor 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.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented in an opinion joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“In foreclosing the teachers’ claims, the court skews the facts, ignores the applicable standard of review, and collapses Hosanna-Tabor’s careful analysis into a single consideration: whether a church thinks its employees play an important religious role,” Sotomayor wrote.

“Because that simplistic approach has no basis in law and strips thousands of schoolteachers of their legal protections, I respectfully dissent.”

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at San Francisco had allowed the lawsuits after ruling that the teachers were secular, rather than religious, employees.

The cases are Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel.

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog, which had early coverage of the decision.

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “Supreme Court to decide scope of exemption from bias laws for religious schools”

ABAJournal.com: “Chemerinsky: Religion comes to the Supreme Court”

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