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Supreme Court reinforces anti-discrimination law’s ministerial exemption

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court upheld religious elementary schools’ ability to otherwise-discriminate against teachers under the “ministerial” exemption. Title VII, the ADEA and other anti-discrimination laws recognize a ministerial exemption, consistent with the First Amendment, that permits a synagogue, for example, to require that its rabbi actually be Jewish and that she adhere faithfully to the synagogue’s interpretation of Judaism.

In this case two teachers sued for wrongful discharge. One alleged age discrimination, the other alleged disability discrimination. The schools responded that it need not prove the real reason for their discharges because neither were protected under either the age or disability discrimination laws, because both fell under the ministerial exemption. Neither teacher was a “minister” in the sense of being ordained, having the title of a minister, or having any religious education or formal training. However, both taught courses that included religion. Both had been instructed when hired and again during their employment that their individual faith and morals were essential components of their jobs performance. Both prayed with their students as part of their jobs. The majority of the Court held all of that was sufficient for both to fall within the ministerial exemption.

There is abundant record evidence that they both performed vital religious duties. Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught, and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility. As elementary school teachers responsible for providing instruction in all subjects, including religion, they were the members of the school staff who were entrusted most directly with the responsibility of educating their students in the faith. And not only were they obligated to provide instruction about the Catholic faith, but they were also expected to guide their students, by word and deed, toward the goal of living their lives in accordance with the faith. They prayed with their students, attended Mass with the students, and prepared the children for their participation in other religious activities. …. Their titles did not include the term “minister,” and they had less formal religious training, but their core responsibilities as teachers of religion were essentially the same. And both their schools expressly saw them as playing a vital part in carrying out the mission of the church, and the schools’ definition and explanation of their roles is important. In a country with the religious diversity of the United States, judges cannot be expected to have a complete understanding and appreciation of the role played by every person who performs a particular role in every religious tradition. A religious institution’s explanation of the role of such employees in the life of the religion in question is important.

Source: Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, case no. 19-267 (7/8/2020).

Supreme Court reaffirms importance of “but-for” analysis in certain kinds of discrimination claims against private employers

An on-going issue in litigation is frequently the standard of causation and whether a plaintiff’s allegations and evidence are established to meet it. One of the more strict standards is the “but-for” test, meaning a plaintiff must show that the adverse employment action (such as termination or refusal to hire) would not have occurred “but for” their membership in a protected class. One of the least strict standards requires the plaintiff to prove only that their membership in a protected class was “a motivating factor” in the decision.

Two recent Supreme Court decisions reinforced the role of “but-for” analysis in at least certain kinds of cases.

First in  Babb v. Wilkie, the Supreme Court held that governmental employers do not enjoy the protection of “but for” analysis in age discrimination claims, even though private employers have and continue to be able to assert the need for “but for” proof in age discrimination cases.

We are not persuaded by the argument that it is anomalous to hold the Federal Government to a stricter standard than private employers or state and local governments. That is what the statutory language dictates, and if Congress had wanted to impose the same standard on all employers, it could have easily done so. 

Second in Comcast Corp. v. National Association of African American-Owned Mediaa unanimous Supreme Court held that a plaintiff asserting a sec. 1981 claim against a non-governmental defendant must meet the stricter “but-for” test, rather than the less strict “motivating factor” test.

Readers are reminded that the “motivating factor” test is the applicable test in some types of claims. As the Supreme Court explained in Comcast, the issue depends upon the specific statute, its language and its legislative history, as well as the extent of relief sought on the claim asserted.