Supreme Court Postpones Arguments, Including in Religious School Bias Cases

By Mark Walsh — March 16, 2020 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Monday that it was postponing its upcoming session of oral arguments because of concerns about the coronavirus. The March 23-April 1 sitting was to include oral arguments in an important education case about whether religious schools are exempt from employment discrimination claims brought by lay teachers.

The court said in a statement that it was postponing the arguments “in keeping with public health precautions recommended in response to COVID-19.”

“The court will examine the options for rescheduling those cases in due course in light of the developing circumstances,” the statement said.

The court had planned to hear one hour of argument on April 1 in two consolidated cases from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles about whether the so-called ministerial exception to employment-discrimination laws for churches and religious schools applies to claims brought by two Catholic school teachers. The teachers involved each taught 5th grade, including daily religious instruction for their students.

One teacher alleged that age discrimination motivated her ouster, while the other sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 claiming she was fired after informing administrators that she had breast cancer and would have to take time off for surgery and chemotherapy.

The question before the Supreme Court in those cases, St. James School v. Biel (No. 19-348) and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru (No. 19-267), is whether the teachers are covered by the ministerial exception—a doctrine that says church and religious school employers are exempt from anti-discrimination laws for employees who are deemed to be ministers of the faith.

Educators have also been awaiting decisions in other cases of interest, including those involving a Montana tax credit program for donations to private school scholarships; cases about whether federal civil rights laws cover gay and transgender employees; and a case about whether President Donald Trump’s administration properly rescinded the immigration program known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

The Supreme Court prefers to announce opinions in argued cases in open court, but the announcement did not rule out the issuance of opinions during the postponement period. The court did say that the justices would meet this Friday for a scheduled private conference and would release orders electronically on Monday, March 23. However, “some Justices may participate remotely by telephone.”

Several justices are at an age for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended precautions to avoid the coronavirus. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg turned 87 on Sunday, and Justice Stephen G. Breyer is 81.

The court had to clear out of its 85-year-old building in 2001 during an anthrax scare. The justices held about a week’s worth of arguments at the main federal courthouse in Washington before returning to their building.

The court’s statement noted that the postponement of arguments was not unprecedented. In 1918, the court pushed back arguments for a month because of the flu pandemic, and arguments in 1793 and 1798 were postponed because of outbreaks of yellow fever.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.