Supreme Court to Decide How Far Religious Freedom Protections Extend for Church Schools

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide how far religious freedom protections extend in parochial classrooms after agreeing on Wednesday to hear the cases of two California teachers who claim their firings were discriminatory. In both instances, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit sided with the teachers.

Attorneys with Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the two Catholic elementary campuses, said the appeals court decision is tantamount to giving the government control over who provides religious instruction in parochial schools, which are constitutionally entitled to “choose ministers that embody their faith without government interference.”

Both schools argue that since a significant part of their classroom duties dealt with religious instruction, the teachers are “ministerial” employees as covered by Supreme Court precedent, and thus exempt from laws that extend to other employees, according to an article in USA Today.

“Parents trust Catholic schools to assist them in one of their most important duties: forming the faith of their children,” Montserrat Alvarado, vice president and executive director for Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a news release. “If courts can second-guess a Catholic school’s judgment about who should teach religious beliefs to fifth graders, then neither Catholics nor any other religious group can be confident in their ability to convey the faith to the next generation.”

Becket is representing St. James School in Torrance and Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach, both in Los Angeles County. In both instances, the schools assert the teachers were terminated due to lackluster job performance. Because of the similarity of the lawsuits, the High Court will consider the cases together. Oral arguments are expected in the spring.

Courthouse News reported that St. James opted not to renew the contract of fifth-grade teacher Kristen Biel for the 2014 school year, citing poor classroom management. Biel, who passed away earlier this year, said the school fired her only after learning she had breast cancer and needed time off for treatment in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Her husband is continuing with the suit.

The following year, Our Lady of Guadalupe School decided not to rehire Agnes Morrissey-Berru, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher. The school said lower enrollment and changing expectations from parents played a role in their decision. Morrissey-Berru alleges, though, the termination was the result of age discrimination.

Central to the case is the concept of a “ministerial” exception, which Becket describes as a First Amendment “right that allows religious schools to choose their own religion teachers.”

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Source: Christian Headlines