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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).