Supreme Court takes up bid by Catholic schools for exemption from worker bias suits

Supreme Court takes up bid by Catholic schools for exemption from worker bias suits
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to hear a pair of cases brought by Catholic schools who say a religious exemption based on the First Amendment shields them from employment discrimination suits brought by two former teachers.

The cases, both originating in Los Angeles County, pit the U.S. Constitution’s safeguards for free expression of religion against legal protections for workers.

One case was brought by Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who claims age discrimination motivated Our Lady of Guadalupe School’s decision not to renew her teaching contract in 2015.  

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A second case was brought by the widower of teacher Kristen Biel. The suit claims St. James School’s dismissal of Biel in 2014 while she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Catholic schools say, among other things, they are immune from the litigation under the so-called ministerial exception. This First Amendment principle bars lawsuits by employees who are considered “ministers,” due to the religious nature of their work.  

The new cases ask the justices to clarify who qualifies as a minister, a legal gray area. 

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the teachers, finding their work was secular, not ministerial, which prompted the schools’ appeal to the Supreme Court. 

The schools asked the justices to follow prior Supreme Court and lower court rulings that say a minister is someone who carries out “important religious functions,” a definition the schools say applies to their former employees. 

The former employees say that while there were some religious aspects to their teaching jobs, they should not be considered ministers. 

A decision in the cases — Our Lady Of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Darryl Biel — is expected before July.