Supreme Court Hears Employment Discrimination Cases Against Religious Organizations

NRB | May 12, 2020 | Advocacy

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments over the phone Monday in the consolidated cases of two faith-based schools sued by former employees whose contracts were not renewed.

The former employees – one who taught fifth grade at St. James School in Torrance, California, and the other who taught fifth grade at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach, California – claimed they were victims of employment discrimination (disability and age, respectively).

However, as a result of the Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School vs. EEOC, religious organizations have immunity from employment discrimination claims.

“Hosanna-Tabor,” noted First Liberty Institute, “explained that the First Amendment exempts religious organizations from employment discrimination claims brought by ministers, because both the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses do not authorize government to interfere in a church’s selection of leaders.”

“As a result, the ministerial exemption immunizes religious organizations from employment discrimination claims related to the hiring and firing of ministers, even if the discrimination claim itself does not relate to the performance of religious duties,” added the legal group and NRB member organization, which is representing the schools.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, had determined that neither school was exempt from the teachers’ claims. This, according to First Liberty, is “because even though the teachers performed religious functions, the teachers’ credentials did not include religious components, the schools did not impose religious requirements in hiring for the positions, and the schools did not expressly describe the teachers as ministers.”

In considering the cases, the Supreme Court will decide how the ministerial exception recognized in Hosanna-Tabor applies to employees who are not formally ordained or titled “ministers,” but whose job duties involve communicating church beliefs – such as teaching religion, praying with students, leading religious plays, and otherwise incorporating the schools’ faith into the curriculum.

A decision from the Supreme Court is expected by the summer.

This report was compiled by NRB Staff, with contributions by First Liberty Institute.

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