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SCOTUS protects religious schools from discrimination lawsuits

by | Nov 25, 2020 | Employment Law

On July 8, 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 7 to 2 decision. This decision held that religious schools have the authority take adverse action against their educators for any reason. This means that religious schools can hire, terminate, or discipline their employees without running afoul of federal employment discrimination laws.  Before the Supreme Court were two cases: Our Lady Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel. In effect, the Supreme Court found that the legal doctrine known as the ministerial exception served as a bar to employees suing private schools for employment discrimination.

Discrimination Lawsuits

In Our Lady of Guadalupe School, Agnes Morrissey-Berru sued the school alleging age discrimination when the school refused to renew her employment contract.  In St. James School, Kristen Biel filed a federal discrimination lawsuit under the Americans with Disability Act when her contract was not renewed while she was being treated for breast cancer. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the ministerial exception did not apply to either plaintiff. Although each teacher had significant religious duties, their job duties did not rise to the level that allowed the school to utilize the ministerial exception to shield each school from federal discrimination laws.

SCOTUS Decision

In reversing the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court extended a 2012 decision. This decision involved the ministerial exception related to an employment discrimination lawsuit brought on behalf of ministers against their churches.  In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, et al., the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, held that the “ministerial exception” is grounded in the First Amendment that precludes application of such legislation concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.  In reversing the Ninths Circuit’s decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School and St. James School, the Supreme Court extended the ministerial exception to teachers. Although the Supreme Court did not foreclose on all discrimination lawsuits brought by employees of religious schools, the Court has significantly raised the bar for employees of religious institutions where their job duties are involve carrying out important religious functions.

Still Have Questions?

If you still have questions on whether this exception to discrimination laws applies to your employer, consult a lawyer. In any case, it is best to consult a lawyer before taking legal action.