Crime & Justice

Supreme Court Carves Out Religious Exception To Fair Employment Laws

The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court
The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

A 7-2 Supreme Court carved out a giant exception to the nation's fair employment laws, ruling that federal employment discrimination laws do not apply to teachers whose duties include instruction in religion at schools run by religious institutions.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.

The cases before the court involved two fifth grade teachers at Catholic parochial schools in California who were fired from their jobs. One, a veteran of 16 years at her school contends her firing was a case of age discrimination. The other said she was fired after telling her superior that she had breast cancer and would need some time off — a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Both schools denied the allegations but maintained that regardless, the federal fair employment laws do not apply to their teachers because they all teach religion from a workbook 40 minutes a day, in addition to other academic subjects.

Dividing along ideological lines, the court's conservative majority agreed with the schools that because of the pervasive nature of religious education, teachers are covered by the"ministerial exception" to laws that generally apply in the workplace. Justice Samuel Alito, a Catholic who did not attend parochial schools, wrote the majority opinion.

Of the five justices on the court who were educated at parochial schools, Sotomayor was the only one in dissent.

The lower courts have long considered ministers exempt from the nation's employment laws, but the lower courts have not considered lay teachers exempt from generally applicable employment laws.

In 2012 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a fourth-grade teacher at a Lutheran school who was commissioned as a minister could not sue over her firing.

Wednesday's decision is an extension of that ruling and would appear to leave lay teachers, and potentially other employees of religious hospitals, universities and charities, unprotected by the nation's fair employment laws.

"Millions of people across the country who never thought or understood themselves to be leaders of the faith now magically have no employment protection," said Stanford Law professor Jeffrey Fisher, who represented the lay teachers in the Supreme Court. He says that in neither of these cases did the schools claim any religious reason for the firing.

The case was brought by Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who alleged age discrimination, and Kristen Biel, who said she was fired because of her cancer diagnosis. Biel's husband, Darryl, remembered the day of the firing vividly.

"She pulled up in the driveway bawling hysterically. She was so hurt that they could be doing this to her," he recalled.

Biel would return to teaching elsewhere; in June 2019, she died.

"She was in the hospital for a couple of days before she had to go on a ventilator, " her husband says. "I promised her I would see this through."

There is one rather rich twist to Biel's case. It turns out that at the time she disclosed her cancer to Sister Mary Margaret Kreuper, who fired her, Kreuper the school principal, was embezzling large amounts of money to finance her gambling sprees to Las Vegas. One article quoted a church accountant as estimating the amount at $500,000.

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