Supreme Court divided in religious school employment discrimination case

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The justices on the Supreme Court were split Monday in their approach to cases involving employment discrimination lawsuits against religious schools.

At issue was the scope of a "ministerial exemption" that religious organizations enjoy that shield them from liability over making decisions regarding who can be religious leaders. The central question was whether it could be applied to teachers who are not spiritual leaders, and if so, where is the line drawn on who is considered a "minister"?

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"Who among them are not ministers?" Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked regarding religious school employees during oral arguments. She pointed out that one does not have to be Catholic to teach at a Catholic school.

"How can a Jewish teacher be a Catholic minister?” she asked.

The cases, Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel, involve teachers at religious schools whose contracts were not renewed, allegedly due to age discrimination and a cancer diagnosis, respectively.

Eric Rassbach, attorney for Our Lady of Guadalupe, insisted that the religious school teachers are indeed religious leaders for the purposes of the exemption because they are teaching students about religion.

"These are the people who will teach the faith to the next generation," he said. "If they don’t do it no one else will."

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The Ninth Circuit had ruled against the schools, reversing a lower court decision. In the case of Agnes Deirdre Morrissey-Berru, who claimed age discrimination, the appellate court acknowledged that she had "significant religious responsibilities" as a teacher at the school, but she had no religious title and little training.

In the case of Kristen Biel, who has since died, the Ninth Circuit ruled in her favor, pointing out that she taught multiple subjects that included religion, and that she used a standard curriculum and school-selected workbook.

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Conservative justices appeared to believe the issue is too murky for the court to decide how religious organizations should define religious roles.

“I am perplexed,” Justice Clarence Thomas said, giving an example of distinguishing between a chemistry teacher at a Catholic school starting class with a Hail Mary prayer and one who teaches religion but in a secular way.

Justice Neil Gorsuch questioned why he and his colleagues should second guess who a religious group deems to be a minister.

Jeffrey Fisher, attorney for Morrissey-Berru and Biel's estate, said he agrees with Gorsuch's question but asserted that it was not the appropriate question to ask. Fisher argued that just because an organization is religious in nature, they should not enjoy "categorical immunity" in cases that have nothing to do with religion.

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The case is just one of several with oral arguments being done via teleconferencing this week due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tuesday will see arguments for three cases related to efforts to subpoena President Trump's financial records -- including his tax returns -- and Wednesday features cases challenging state laws dictating how presidential electors should vote.