Court broadens ‘ministerial exception’ in blow to teachers

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that teachers in Catholic schools fall under the “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws, potentially stripping protection from thousands of church employees.

Supreme Court Building

Supreme Court Building

The ruling could be a legal setback for counselors and a teacher at Indianapolis high schools who sued the local archdiocese after losing their jobs for being in same-sex marriages, although it’s too early to know for sure.

In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled that two California elementary-school teachers performed “vital religious duties” even though they were lay teachers who were primarily responsible for teaching general academic subjects.

“Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission.”

The teachers taught religion two or three hours a week from textbooks or workbooks. They also led prayers and accompanied students to required religious services. They sued after they lost their jobs, one allegedly because of her age and the other after she had been diagnosed with cancer.

Two of the court’s liberal justices, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, joined the five conservatives in the decision. Two of the conservatives, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, said in a concurring opinion that the court should have gone further in deferring to religious institutions on who is and isn’t a minister.

The concept of the ministerial exception comes from a 2012 decision in which the court ruled that a Lutheran teacher was not covered by anti-discrimination laws. The rationale was that churches should be free from government oversight in hiring ministers and similar employees. In that case, the court noted that the teacher had the title of “minister,” had undergone extensive religious training and considered herself “called” to religious service. But on Wednesday, the court cast aside those factors as irrelevant.

Dissenting from the decision, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the exception was meant to apply to “faith leaders,” not any employee deemed by a religious employer to be vital to the church’s mission.

“One cannot help but conclude that the Court has just traded legal analysis for a rubber stamp,” Sotomayor wrote.

Broadening the exception could also take anti-discrimination protections away from employees other than teachers, such as nurses at church-run hospitals.

In Indianapolis, Roncalli High School counselors Shelly Fitzgerald and Lynn Starkey and Cathedral High School social studies teacher Joshua Payne-Elliott were fired after church officials learned they were in same-sex marriages. Their attorneys say their duties were academic and not related to fostering religion.

“It’s an unfortunate decision for everyone who teaches in a Catholic school across the country. But I don’t think it’s going to be outcome determinative in the cases I’m currently working on,” Kathleen DeLaney, an Indianapolis attorney who represents Fitzgerald and Payne-Elliott, told the Indianapolis Star.

In a separate decision last month, the Supreme Court ruled that a law against sex discrimination applies to discrimination by sexual orientation. That decision was a positive for the Indianapolis counselors and teacher.

The Indianapolis cases also have policy implications for Indiana, because the state provides taxpayer-funded vouchers to help qualifying families pay tuition at religious schools. While Catholic schools claim a right to discriminate in hiring and firing, some voucher-supported schools also discriminate in enrolling students.

In 2019-20, Roncalli received $1.8 million in voucher funding and Cathedral received $1.2 million.

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