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Supreme Court Takes Up New 'Ministerial Exemption' Lawsuits

Five students in a classroom are sitting with their desks pushed together. They are holding hands in a circle and have their heads bowed in prayer. There are bibles open on their desks.
By Laura Temme, Esq. on December 27, 2019 7:17 AM

Last week, the Supreme Court added five new cases to its current term, including two that ask the question: To what extent are religious organizations immune from lawsuits by employees?

Agnes Morrissey-Beru, a teacher at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach, accused the school of age discrimination after her contract was not renewed. Another teacher, Kristen Biel, sued St. James School in Torrence under the Americans With Disabilities Act when the school failed to renew her contract in 2014. Biel was being treated for breast cancer, and unfortunately has since passed. Her husband has continued pursuing the case.

Can Religious Schools Avoid All Employment Lawsuits?

Their cases hinge on the "ministerial exemption" of the First Amendment, which allows religious entities to avoid certain claims by employees. A court-created doctrine, the ministerial exemption prohibits the courts from reviewing a religious employer's decisions regarding ministers. At the district court level, the judges sided with the schools. However, on appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that, because the two women were teachers and not "ministers," ministerial exemption did not apply.

Here We Go Again

In 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a woman who was both a teacher and minister at a religious school could not sue her employer because of the ministerial exemption. However, the Ninth Circuit noted that although Biel and Morrissey-Beru had a handful of religious duties, their roles as teachers were primarily secular.

And the Ninth Circuit may have a point. In the previous case before SCOTUS, the school had two categories of teachers - "called" teachers who had additional religious training, and "lay" teachers who were not required to complete such training. The teacher in that case was "called," had completed the religious training, and was held out as a minister by the school. By contrast, Biel and Morrissey-Beru's positions were primarily secular and required no religious training. By taking up these cases, the Supreme Court has an opportunity to fine-tune the ministerial exemption to ensure it is not overly broad.

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