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On Wednesday, the Supreme Court decided it would consider two cases involving religious schools’ right to control which teacher it chooses to teach its religion classes.
In both cases, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel, the schools involved are Catholic schools and are being defended by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against both schools, prompting Becket to appeal to the Supreme Court.
EdWeek noted that a linchpin of the case for the schools is the 2012 decision Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a case which Becket was also involved in. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled church and religious school employers are exempt from anti-discrimination laws for employees regarded as ministers of the school’s faith.
In Biel, a former teacher said she was fired after she told the school she would have to take time off for surgery and chemotherapy for her breast cancer, according to EdWeek, which added that the principal informed her that she was not being renewed because she was not strict enough with her class. When Biel sued, the school asked for summary judgment based on the ministerial exception recognized by the court in Hosanna-Tabor.
In Morrissey-Berru, the teacher’s contract was not renewed because the school said she could not keep order in the classroom. The teacher sued, claiming age bias.
Becket Law wrote, “In Hosanna-Tabor, a similar Becket case in 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the ‘ministerial exception’ for a church school, a First Amendment right that allows religious schools to choose their own religion teachers. The ministerial exception protects all religious groups’ freedom to choose ‘ministerial’ employees without interference from bureaucrats or courts.”
Other religious groups joined the Catholic schools in fighting for the right to choose their own religious teachers; in a brief filed by the Church of God in Christ and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the petitioners write,
The Court should step in now to resolve this split of authority that subjects religious groups to different rules depending on the accident of geography. The Ninth Circuit’s elevation of formalities such as title over substantive duties invites judges to make inappropriate determinations about the affairs of religious organizations and leads to arbitrary and discriminatory results … The Ninth Circuit’s subordination of religious function to other, often more superficial considerations upends the historical and constitutional tradition embodied in Hosanna-Tabor and swings open the door to judicial meddling with religious doctrine. To further minimize the risk of judicial interference in internal religious affairs, courts should defer to religious institutions’ good-faith understanding that duties are religiously important rather than crediting plaintiffs’ characterizations.
Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, summed up, “Do we really want judges, juries, or bureaucrats deciding who ought to teach Catholicism at a parish school, or Judaism at a Jewish day school? Of course not. Religion teachers play a vital role in the ecosystem of faith. We are confident that the Supreme Court will recognize that under our Constitution government officials cannot control who teaches kids what to believe.”