Supreme Court sides with religious schools in discrimination suits

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a pair of Los Angeles-area Catholic schools are immune from discrimination suits brought by two former teachers in a decision that expands the scope of First Amendment safeguards for religious employers.

The 7-2 decision broadens the so-called ministerial exception, a First Amendment doctrine that prohibits lawsuits by employees who are considered ministers due to the religious nature of their work.

The former teachers are Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who says she suffered age discrimination, and now-deceased Kristen Biel, whose widower said Biel’s school fired her in violation of disability laws while she battled breast cancer.

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Justice Samuel AlitoSamuel AlitoConservatives blast Supreme Court ruling: Roberts 'abandoned his oath' Supreme Court again rejects church challenge to virus restriction Should we judge judges by whether their decisions appeal to us? MORE wrote in the majority's opinion that teachers at religious schools qualify under the ministerial exception because they are tasked with instructing their institutions' faith to students.

"The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission," Alito wrote. "Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate."

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Justices Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgMore Democrats than Republicans say Supreme Court key to 2020 vote Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Ginsburg discharged from hospital after nonsurgical procedure MORE and Sonia SotomayorSonia SotomayorVoters should channel the Black Lives Matter energy at the polls Supreme Court's approval rating highest in over a decade: Gallup GOP asks Supreme Court to reinstate Arizona voting rules deemed racially biased MORE dissented, arguing that the decision will give religious institutions license to discriminate against their employees.

"This sweeping result is profoundly unfair," Sotomayor wrote in a dissenting opinion. "Recently, this Court has lamented a perceived 'discrimination against religion.' Yet here it swings the pendulum in the extreme opposite direction, permitting religious entities to discriminate widely and with impunity for reasons wholly divorced from religious beliefs."  

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"The inherent injustice in the Court’s conclusion will be impossible to ignore for long, particularly in a pluralistic society like ours," Sotomayor added.

The decision comes on the same day that the court ruled in the same 7-2 fashion to uphold a Trump administration rule allowing companies to opt out of paying for their employees' birth control as part of their health coverage. 

The Supreme Court said in a 2012 ruling that the ministerial exception was essential for allowing religious institutions to practice and preach their faith without government interference. But the decision was vague about who qualified under the exception.

The latest decision overturns a pair of appellate court decisions that found the two teachers held secular positions within the schools, allowing them to sue for employment discrimination.

Alito said religious institutions are entitled to some deference by the courts in deciding who qualifies as a minister. 

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"In a country with the religious diversity of the United States, judges cannot be expected to have a complete understanding and appreciation of the role played by every person who performs a particular role in every religious tradition," Alito wrote. "A religious institution’s explanation of the role of such employees in the life of the religion in question is important."

Sotomayor, in her dissent, countered Alito, saying that his "simplistic approach has no basis in law and strips thousands of schoolteachers of their legal protections" and noted that the two plaintiffs weren't even required to be Catholic to hold their teaching positions.

Updated at 11:26 a.m.