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Supreme Court sides with Little Sisters of the Poor, Catholic schools

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John Burger - published on 07/08/20

In the other decision issued Wednesday, which combined the cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Darryl Biel, the court ruled that federal employment discrimination laws do not apply to teachers whose duties include instruction in religion at schools run by churches. The 7-2 ruling also saw Ginsburg and Sotomayor in the dissent.

Both cases involved schools in the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. At one, teacher Agnes Morrisey-Berru brought an age discrimination lawsuit against Our Lady of Guadalupe School after she was fired. The school, however, maintains that it based its decisions on classroom performance. In the other case, St. James School declined to renew Kristen Biel’s contract after a year at the school. The teacher filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that she was let go because she had requested a leave of absence to obtain treatment for breast cancer. The school maintains that the decision was based on poor performance.

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, said the ruling.

“It is instructive to consider why a church’s independence on matters ‘of faith and doctrine’ requires the authority to select, supervise, and if necessary, remove a minister without interference by secular authorities,” the majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito, said. “Without that power, a wayward minister’s preaching, teaching, and counseling could contradict the church’s tenets and lead the congregation away from the faith. The ministerial exception was recognized to preserve a church’s independent authority in such matters.”

Adrian Alarcon, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Catholic Schools, pointed out that “religious schools play an integral role in passing the faith to the next generation of believers” and that the archdiocesan Catholic schools are “grateful that the Supreme Court recognized faith groups must be free to make their own decisions about who should be entrusted with these essential duties,” Catholic News Service reported.

Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett said at the time of the oral arguments that the cases were not, “as some have complained, about a supposed right of churches to ‘ignore’ civil-rights laws. Quite the contrary. These cases are about protecting the civil and constitutional rights of religious institutions to decide religious questions for themselves.”

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