The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in a pair of cases that could shape how far religious employers’ “ministerial exception” goes in protecting them from discrimination lawsuits brought by certain employees.
Observers came away from Monday’s hearing believing the court may take the opportunity to fine-tune legal language on religious exemptions that faith-based employers possess to make hiring decisions that could break federal and local discrimination laws.
On Monday, the nation’s high court heard the cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel. Both cases center around California elementary school religion teachers whose contracts were not renewed and who have sued on the basis that they were discriminated against in manners that violate the law.
In the case of Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach, Agnes Deirdre Morrissey-Berru claimed that her contract as a religion teacher was not renewed as a result of age discrimination. She sued under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
However, the Our Lady of Guadalupe School contends that the teacher was let go due to poor performance after a new principal was brought to the school and a new rating system was implemented that featured the teachers becoming catechists.
In the other case, Kristen Biel taught a fifth-grade religion class at St. James School in Torrance starting in 2013. But when her contract was not renewed in the next year, she sued and claimed that the school was discriminating against her for having cancer, a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Lawyers for the school contend, however, that Biel was let go because of poor performance and that the school made it known to Biel before she disclosed her cancer diagnosis that she may not get a new contract.
District courts dismissed both cases on grounds that a ministerial exception is provided to religious groups when it comes to hiring decisions related to positions responsible for the sharing and teaching of the faith. The legal precedent was broadened by the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
However, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the teachers last year. The 9th Circuit broke away from trends set in previous lower and appellate court rulings by focusing on the fact that the teachers’ formal titles seemed secular.
While reports have indicated that the justices appeared divided along ideological lines during Monday’s telephone hearing, attorneys at Becket who represent the schools came away from the hearing with optimism that the schools will come out on top.
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Samuel Smith