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.

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Court could weaken discrimination protections

Counselors and teachers at Indianapolis Catholic high schools looked to have a solid case when they sued after being fired for being married to same-sex partners. But the legal ground may be shifting beneath them.

Arguments heard Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court could result in religious schools being given a blank check for widespread employment discrimination.

Supreme Court Building

“It’s important,” said Dan Conkle, a constitutional law expert at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. “And depending on how the court decides, it could have pretty dramatic implications for parochial school teachers.”

The case heard Tuesday involves two fifth-grade teachers at California Catholic schools who said they were unjustly fired, one because of her age and the other because she needed time off for cancer treatment. The schools countered with the so-called ministerial exception, which says ministers and others who perform important religious functions aren’t covered by anti-discrimination laws.

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