U.S. Supreme Court Holds Employment Discrimination Claims of Religious School Teachers Are Barred by the First Amendment


On July 8, 2020, the United States Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision held that the “ministerial exemption” which prohibits courts from considering employment disputes of certain employees of religiously affiliated organizations, applied to two Catholic school lay teachers. Therefore, their claims of discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act were foreclosed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Facts of the Case: Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru involved separate claims by primary school teachers that were consolidated by the Court. Both were “lay teachers” at Catholic schools, meaning that they taught the general curriculum to their students.

Like all teachers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Morrisey-Berru and Beil were expected to serve as “catechists,” responsible for the faith formation of students (although neither held any formal ordination or religious designation by the Church). This requirement was reflected in their annual teaching agreements and the faculty handbooks. The annual teaching agreements and faculty handbooks also made clear that they had to serve as models of Catholic faith principles, incorporate Catholic principles into lay subjects, and recognize that the religious development of students was the first goal of the schools. The evidence of record established that among many other religious activities and duties, each of them provided religious instruction to students, prayed with them daily, and attended mass with their students.

Both brought discrimination claims against their schools when their contracts were not renewed. Morrisey-Berru claimed that the school based its decision on her age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Beil asserted a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act when she was discharged after requesting leave for breast cancer treatment. In both cases, lower courts granted summary judgment in favor of the schools, holding that the “ministerial exemption” recognized by the Supreme Court in Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012) precluded the courts from adjudicating their claims due to the risk of becoming entangled in religious matters. Also in both cases, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the grants of summary judgment, reasoning that the lack of a formal title of “minister” and the lack of formal religious training was more significant than the other evidence of the roles each fulfilled in advancing the religious mission of the schools.

The Court’s Decision.  In a 7-2 decision authored by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decisions. Acknowledging that religious institutions do not enjoy complete immunity from secular laws, the Court nonetheless has long recognized that they do enjoy autonomy under the First Amendment in internal management decisions that are central to religion. The “ministerial exemption” was crafted to prevent courts from reviewing the bona fides of internal employment decisions involving employees “holding certain important positions within churches and other religious institutions.”  Because the early cases involved ordained ministers for the most part, the term “ministerial exemption” was adopted.

When the exemption reached the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor, the Court held that a teacher who held the title “minister” and taught a curriculum to primary school students that was imbued with religion could not assert a claim of disability discrimination. Although not an ordained minister as a “called teacher” rather than a lay teacher, she had achieved through training a specifically recognized religious status.

Although each of the teachers in the current case was lay rather than called, the Court majority concluded that the nature of their duties and positions posed the risk of entanglement between secular law and religion that would violate the First Amendment were their discrimination claims to be adjudicated. The Court majority noted that relying on titles such as “minister” was itself problematic because religions are not uniform in how they determine religious status. The mere act of trying to evaluate what titles “count” would involve courts in an impermissible inquiry. For similar reasons, evaluating what training qualifies as sufficient to confer this status would require courts to decide whether the religious institution’s criteria are sufficiently religious.

As Justice Alito wrote:

What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does.  And implicit in our decision in Hosanna-Tabor was a recognition that educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school.

The Court held simply that “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.”

In the dissent’s view (Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg), the teachers’ claims of discrimination should not have been foreclosed under the First Amendment because they were lay teachers who taught primarily secular subjects, had little formal religious training, and were not even required to be Catholic.

Lessons Learned.  The Court’s decision should not be viewed as cavalierly allowing religious schools to discriminate with impunity against employees. Rather, it represents a recognition that secular intervention into the motive for employment decisions concerning employees who serve a religious mission poses a risk to the First Amendment rights that Congress has no authority to abridge by statute.