In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and in St. James Catholic School v. Biel, Becket Law (formerly the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty) is defending two California Catholic elementary schools’ right to choose ministers that embody their faith without government interference. After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against both schools and rejected the prevailing common-sense standard for allowing religious schools to choose their teachers, Becket appealed to the Supreme Court, which has now agreed to hear both cases.
In Hosanna-Tabor, a similar Becket case in 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the “ministerial exception” for a church school, a First Amendment right that allows religious schools to choose their own religion teachers. The ministerial exception protects all religious groups’ freedom to choose “ministerial” employees without interference from bureaucrats or courts. Most courts have ruled that ministerial employees are those employees who perform important religious functions, like instructing young children in the precepts of the Catholic faith. But in both Our Lady of Guadalupe School and St. James School, the Ninth Circuit rejected this widely accepted rule.
“Parents trust Catholic schools to assist them in one of their most important duties: forming the faith of their children,” said Montserrat Alvarado, vice president and executive director at Becket. “If courts can second-guess a Catholic school’s judgment about who should teach religious beliefs to fifth graders, then neither Catholics nor any other religious group can be confident in their ability to convey the faith to the next generation.”
Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Biel played crucial roles in teaching the Catholic faith to their fifth-grade students. Both taught a religion class, integrated Catholic values into every subject they taught, joined their students in daily prayer, and accompanied students to Mass and other religious services. However, when each school decided not to renew the teachers’ contracts based on a history of poor performance, both teachers sued.
In December 2018, the Ninth Circuit ruled against St. James Catholic School, saying the school did not have the right to fire the religion teachers.
In April 2019, the court also ruled against Our Lady of Guadalupe School. Even though both teachers had significant religious responsibilities, the Ninth Circuit still decided that their work was not religious enough and therefore allowed the court to intervene. Nine Ninth Circuit judges wrote a scathing dissent criticizing the rulings, and leading legal scholars and diverse religious groups condemned the rulings as dangerously wrong.
“Do we really want judges, juries, or bureaucrats deciding who ought to teach Catholicism at a parish school, or Judaism at a Jewish day school? Of course not,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Religion teachers play a vital role in the ecosystem of faith. We are confident that the Supreme Court will recognize that under our Constitution government officials cannot control who teaches kids what to believe.”