SCOTUS to hear church discrimination case

Posted at 9:21 AM, May 11, 2020 and last updated 6:57 PM, May 18, 2023

By Court TV Staff

The Supreme Court of the United States will be the deciding factor in a case involving a church’s alleged discrimination against a former teacher.


Agnes Morrissey-Berru taught fifth and sixth-grade at California catholic private school for sixteen years until 2015. When her contract wasn’t renewed by Our Lady of Guadalupe, she sued the institution for age discrimination. A federal court tossed her claim, finding a decision previously made by SCOTUS rendered her case nil.

That was the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where the Justices unanimously agreed that federal discrimination laws do not apply to religious institutions’ selection of religious leaders and employees who perform a ministerial function.

The exception makes religious institutions immune to employment discrimination lawsuits.

Constitutional lawyer Tom Dupree says, “It preserves the separation of church and state…If you have a situation where a court is basically inserting itself into the internal decision-making processes of a church or a religious group, and deciding who can be a minister who could be a priest who could be a teacher of religion, that really presents a problem under our Constitution.”

How and when the “ministerial exception” for schools applies has been a point of contention among lower courts and when Morissey-Berru appealed her case to the 9th Circuit, the judges sided with her. They said even though she taught religious subjects, her duties were not ministerial in nature and therefore the Guadalupe School would not be exempt from her discrimination lawsuit. SCOTUS agreed to hear the matter, consolidating it with a similar case called St. James School v. Biel.

In that case, a teacher “sued under the Americans With Disabilities Act because she had breast cancer and required chemotherapy,” according to Penn State Law Professor Michael Foreman. When the teacher was terminated, “she argued it was because of her disability,” says Foreman.

Now, both cases seek clarity in defining what type of employees fall under the ministerial exception and the Court’s decision will have far-reaching implications.

Dupree says, “The case on one hand could be viewed as an ordinary employment discrimination case. But on the other hand, it really implicates some of the most profound questions about what our First Amendment under the Constitution protects.”




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