Supreme Court Rules “Ministerial Exception” Applies to Catholic School Teachers In Discrimination Cases

Jeffrey Maylor
Jeffrey Maylor
07/09/2020

On July 8th, the Supreme Court ruled that employment discrimination laws do not apply to teachers at schools run by religious institutions.  The Court’s 7-2 decision in  Our Lady of Guadalupe School  was a combination of two cases brought by teachers in Catholic schools in California – Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Darryl Biel (as personal representative of the estate of Kristen Biel).

Justice Alito’s majority opinion expands the “ministerial exception” by which courts are “bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions.”  Generally, religious institutions are not immune from secular laws, but the First Amendment protects a religious institution’s autonomy to make internal management decisions “that are essential to the institution’s central mission.”  The autonomy extends to the institution’s selection of individuals in certain key roles.

Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Biel were elementary school teachers at Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.  Both teachers were employed under nearly identical employment agreements that set out the schools’ religious mission; required teachers to serve that mission; imposed commitments regarding religious instruction, worship, and personal modeling of the faith; and explained that teacher performance would be reviewed on those bases.  Both teachers taught religion in the classroom, prayed with their students, and attended religious services with their students.  Neither teacher held the title of minister nor held themselves out in public as ministers.

Morrissey-Berru alleged Our Lady of Guadalupe School (“OLG”) demoted her and failed to renew her contract in order to hire a younger teacher.  Morrissey-Berru sued OLG for violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

Kristen Biel was diagnosed with breast cancer and requested a leave of absence from St. James.  The school declined to renew her contract after one full year at the school.  Biel filed charges with the EEOC alleging she was discharged for requesting the leave of absence, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The schools denied the allegations and claimed that the “ministerial exception” applied to both teachers because of their roles at their respective schools.  In both cases, summary judgment was granted for the schools because the District Court found that the “ministerial exception” applied.  On appeal, the Ninth Circuit, in separate decisions, concluded that the “ministerial exception” did not apply because they were teachers and did not have the credentials, training, or title of minister.

The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, finding that the “ministerial exception” can apply to teachers and courts cannot intervene into employment disputes where the exception applies.  The Supreme Court stated that a variety of factors may be important to consider when determining whether a position falls within the “ministerial exception.”  However, the focus of the analysis should be on the employee’s job duties and particularly the employee’s “role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.”  The Court held that it is also important to consider the religious institution’s explanation of the role of its employee in carrying out the mission of the religion in question.  The Court found that “both [teachers] performed vital religious duties, such as educating their students in the Catholic faith.”  Additionally, “their schools expressly saw them as playing a vital role in carrying out the Church’s mission.”

Ultimately, the Supreme Court concluded, “when a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”

The Supreme Court’s holding extends protections to religious institutions from employment discrimination claims, thereby reducing government regulation of their institution.  Employees of religious institutions will have to consider their role in the mission of the religious institution if they want to be successful in an employment discrimination claim against their employer.

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