Supreme Court to Hear Appeals From Two Catholic Schools in Job-Bias Cases

By Mark Walsh — December 18, 2019 4 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to hear the appeals of two Roman Catholic schools in cases in which lower courts allowed employment-discrimination lawsuits by former teachers to proceed.

The schools, both part of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, argue that the teachers were integral to the religious mission of the schools and thus their suits were barred by the “ministerial exception” to the civil rights laws recognized by the justices in a 2012 case.

“The First Amendment’s Religion Clauses forbid government interference in a religious group’s selection of its ministerial employees,” says the brief of one of the schools.

The high court granted review in St. James School v. Biel (Case No. 19-348) and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru (No. 19-267) in a brief order that says they will be consolidated for one hour of argument. That will likely be in March or April with a decision by late June.

In the 2012 decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Supreme Court ruled church and religious school employers are exempt from anti-discrimination laws for employees who are deemed to be ministers of the faith.

The high court did not set a specific test for determining when an employee was covered by the ministerial exception, ruling that courts must examine the specifics of each case. Lower courts have been hashing out the contours of the exception, with seven federal appeals courts and the highest courts of at least six states relying on a “ministerial function” approach, in which the employee’s job duties are the key factor in determining whether the employee falls under the ministerial exception.

But in decisions involving the Los Angeles-area Catholic schools, two separate panels of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, held that the employee’s religious duties alone were insufficient to invoke the ministerial exception, and that the exception was ordinarily applied to those with “religious leadership” roles.

Case Details

In the case involving St. James School, in Torrance, Calif., a former 5th grade teacher, Kristen Biel, alleged that she was fired after informing administrators that she had breast cancer and would have to take time off for surgery and chemotherapy.

The principal told Biel the school would not renew her contract because the teacher’s classroom management was “not strict” and that “it was not fair ... to have two teachers for the children during the school year,” court papers say. Six months earlier, Biel had received a largely positive teaching evaluation from the principal.

Biel sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which bars employment discrimination based on disability. The school moved for summary judgment based on the ministerial exception recognized by the court in Hosanna-Tabor.

The case from Our Lady of Guadalupe School, in Hermosa Beach, Calif., involves teacher Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who taught 6th grade beginning in 1999 and later 5th grade. Her contract was not renewed after the 2013-14 school year, after the school says she had a problem keeping order in her classroom and later to meet expectations under a new reading program.

Morrissey-Berru sued alleging age bias under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

Court papers say both teachers were themselves Catholic and were regularly involved in imparting the Catholic faith to their students in daily lessons in religion and throughout other subjects, as well as through prayer, devotion, and Bible reading.

Federal district courts ruled for the schools on the ministerial exception in both cases. But the 9th Circuit court reversed in each.

In Biel’s case, a panel ruled 2-1 to revive her suit. The majority said that in contrast to the teacher in the Hosanna-Tabor case, who was a commissioned Lutheran minister and a “called” teacher of the Lutheran faith, Biel had worked as a teacher for tutoring companies, multiple public schools, another Catholic school, and even a Lutheran school.

“Biel’s role in Catholic religious education” was “limited to teaching religion from a book,” the majority said.

A separate 9th Circuit panel applied similar reasoning in reviving Morrissey-Berru’s case.

The full 9th Circuit court declined to rehear the case with a larger panel of judges, though nine judges on that court dissented, with one of the dissenters saying the analysis in the Biel case “poses grave consequences for religious minorities.”

Both St. James and Our Lady of Guadalupe schools appealed to the Supreme Court, backed by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based legal organization. They stressed the conflict in lower-court rulings applying the ministerial exception.

“The scope of the ministerial exception is a vital and recurring question of nationwide importance for thousands of religious organizations and individuals,” both schools’ briefs say.

Biel died in June, but her case is being carried on for damages by her husband. A brief urging the court not to take up the case stresses that St. James School did not require its teachers to be Catholic and that the school never held Biel out as a minister of the Catholic faith.

In a brief for Morrissey-Berru, the same lawyer, Jennifer A. Lipinski of Woodland Hills, Calif., asks: “When employed by a parochial school, does a teacher’s incorporation of religion into some aspects of the curriculum automatically render that teacher a ‘minister’ for purposes of the ministerial exception?”

Lipinski answers no, but now the Supreme Court will reach its own conclusion.

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