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Supreme Court upholds religious schools’ right to hire, fire religious teachers

The narrow ruling is a 'step in the right direction,' Justices Thomas and Gorsuch wrote in a concurring opinion.
Wed Jul 8, 2020 - 10:41 am EST
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WASHINGTON, D.C., July 8, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Government cannot interfere with a religious school’s judgement on who should or should not teach religion classes, according to a narrow 7-2 ruling handed down this morning by the United States Supreme Court.

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel concern two California Catholic elementary schools’ right to select educators who reflect their understanding of their faith, free from government interference. The religious liberty legal firm Becket Law is representing the schools, who are facing a lawsuit from two teachers fired for unsatisfactory performance, Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Biel.

“Eight years ago in Hosanna Tabor — the pretext inquiry, the notice requirements, the idea that freedom of association makes freedom of religion entirely unnecessary — all were raised in Hosanna Tabor and rejected unanimously,” Becket attorney Eric Rassbach argued. “Eight years later, (the response) to (those) arguments are not any more convincing. In short, there’s no reason for government to get into business of teaching religion.”

Becket argued that the schools’ hiring and firing decisions fall under a “ministerial exemption,” meaning religious institutions have the right to decide whom they want imparting the faith to others, free from government interference — even when the employees in question, in this case teachers, are not “ministers” in the strictest sense. On Wednesday, the court determined that the ministerial exemption applies to religious schools’ staffing decisions.

“Although these teachers were not given the title of ‘minister’ and have less religious training than” the teacher in Hosanna-Tabor, an earlier case involving the ministerial exception, “we hold that their cases fall within the same rule that dictated our decision in Hosanna-Tabor,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion. “The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission.”

“Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate,” the majority declared.

In a concurring opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, Thomas and Gorsuch argued that courts should defer to religious institutions to determine who counts as a “minister,” and therefore which teachers’ jobs should be exempt from non-discrimination laws.

They add that the “Religion Clauses require civil courts to defer to religious organizations' good-faith claims that a certain employee's position is ‘ministerial.’”

They wrote:

The Court’s decision today is a step in the right direction. The Court properly declines to consider whether an employee shares the religious organization’s beliefs when determining whether that employee’s position falls within the “ministerial exception,” explaining that to “determin[e] whether a person is a ‘co-religionist’ . . . would risk judicial entanglement in religious issues.” ...But the same can be said about the broader inquiry whether an employee’s position is “ministerial.” This Court usually goes to great lengths to avoid governmental “entanglement” with religion…

To avoid such interference, we should defer to these groups’ goodfaith understandings of which individuals are charged with carrying out the organizations’ religious missions.

The ruling comes as little surprise in light of oral arguments in May, during which a majority of the justices appeared receptive to the Catholic schools’ arguments. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who angered conservatives earlier this week by redefining the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” previously asked of this case, “we don’t second guess those sincerely held religious beliefs” in other First Amendment questions, so “why would we do it here?”

Somewhat more surprising is the fact that liberal Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined the court’s more conservative-leaning members in the majority. Only left-wing Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

“This sweeping result is profoundly unfair,” Sotomayor declared in her dissenting opinion. “The Court is not only wrong on the facts, but its error also risks upending antidiscrimination protections for many employees of religious entities. Recently, this Court has lamented a perceived ‘discrimination against religion’ [...] Yet here it swings the pendulum in the extreme opposite direction, permitting religious entities to discriminate widely and with impunity for reasons wholly divorced from religious beliefs.”

This ruling, and the Supreme Court’s 7-2 ruling in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor, represent significant victories for religious liberty, and may help reassure conservatives stung by the court’s recent decision striking down abortion clinic regulations in Louisiana.


  first amendment, ministerial exemption, our lady of guadalupe school v. morrissey-berru, religious education, religious freedom, religious schools, supreme court

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