In the next few months, the Supreme Court will decide whether a religious school or the government gets to choose who can teach children. This decision is being considered in the consolidated cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel. The National Legal Foundation is actively working to protect the rights of the religious schools and the freedoms of Americans secured by the First Amendment. The NLF filed two friend-of-the-court briefs for these cases: the first requesting that the Supreme Court take the Our Lady case and, once the Court agreed to take both the Our Lady and St. James School cases, a second in support of the schools’ positions.
By way of background, in the 2012 case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, the Supreme Court ruled that the so-called “ministerial exception” applies to some teachers at religious schools. This “exception” means that religious institutions get to control the hiring and firing of employees who are deemed to be “ministers” without interference from the state. Since then, lower courts have wrestled with the limits of this “exception.” Now the Supreme Court will give some guidance via its decision in these two cases.
In the first case, Agnes Morrissey-Berru was a teacher at Our Lady of Guadalupe School. Her responsibilities included leading her students in daily prayer and preparing them for Mass. When her performance began to fall off, the school decided not to renew her contract. Morrissey-Berru responded by filing an age discrimination lawsuit. The district court ruled in favor of the school using Hosanna-Tabor’s ministerial exception. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling, refusing to classify Morrissey-Berru a minister. The school then petitioned the Supreme Court, asking it to take the case.
In the second case, Kristen Biel was a teacher at St. James Catholic School. Biel taught fifth graders using a curriculum that was infused with Catholic faith and values, joined the students in prayer, and took them to Mass. When Biel’s classroom performance was found to be beneath the school’s standards, St. James worked with her to improve. Then Biel was diagnosed with cancer, and she notified the school, telling them that she would need time off during her treatments. As weeks passed, Biel did not show signs of improvement in her classroom performance, so the school decided not to renew her contract. She responded by filling a lawsuit, alleging that St. James had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by firing her because of her cancer. The school, however, warned Biel before her diagnosis that she was not performing well. St. James stated that her contact was not renewed because of her fall off of performance, not because of her cancer. After the district court ruled in favor of St. James using the ministerial exception, Biel appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court. Like its decision concerning Morrissey-Berru, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling. In response, St. James petitioned the Supreme Court.
The NLF’s first brief argued the importance of the Our Lady of Guadalupe case, requesting that the Supreme Court accept the petition. The Court’s endorsement of the ministerial exception in Hosanna-Tabor left many of the exception’s parameters to be defined later, and the lower courts have proceeded with this definitional task. In Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Ninth Circuit Court improperly disqualified Morrissey-Berru as a “minister.” This case, we argued, provides a good opportunity for the Supreme Court to give further guidance on the ministerial exception.
Our Lady of Guadalupe has importance and application to all religious ministries, not just religious schools. The Court should adhere to the demands of the Religion Clauses, which require governments to refrain from divining religious doctrines and second-guessing a religious organization’s reasons for hiring and firing employees engaged in religious activities. Many religious organizations sincerely believe that their mission is best accomplished by hiring faithful employees, in both belief and conduct, to the ministries’ doctrines and purposes. In order to protect these organizations’ First Amendment rights, the government must be prohibited from restricting an organization’s free exercise of religion through invalid applications of anti-discrimination laws. As recognized in Hosanna-Tabor, the concerns that led the Supreme Court to recognize the ministerial exception apply more broadly than just to the leader of a religious organization. Religious organizations’ determination of which employees they will hire and fire involves many factors. The Religion Clauses require governments and courts to defer to a religious organization’s understanding of who qualifies as it’s “minister,” rather than to create their own definition of “minister.”
After the Court agreed to hear both Our Lady and St. James and consolidated the two cases, the NLF filed a second brief on behalf of ourselves, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Samaritan’s Purse, Forcey Christian School, the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers, and the Pacific Justice Institute. We provided four reasons the Court should rule in favor of the schools.
First, since the Supreme Court decided to hear this case since, it should take the opportunity to clarify that the ministerial exception covers any organization whose mission is marked by clear or obvious religious characteristics.
Second, as we argued in our first brief, the ministerial exception’s application must be grounded in First Amendment principles, not comparisons to the teacher in Hosanna-Tabor. The Ninth Circuit over emphasized the particular facts in Hosanna-Tabor in order to produce its ruling instead of adhering to First Amendment principles. This is a very impractical approach, because religious organizations vary greatly in their purposes, and therefore, the circumstances in Hosanna-Tabor cannot be the touchstone for future cases.
Third, to prevent future erroneous decisions, the Supreme Court should adopt the approach advocated by Justice Clarence Thomas’ in his Hosanna-Tabor concurrence to determine the scope of the ministerial exception. This approach encompasses the universe of covered “ministers.” His approach is simply this: the Religion Clauses require the courts to defer to a religious organization’s good-faith understanding of who qualifies as its “minister.”
Fourth, we explained how Justice Thomas’s approach is critically important to several of the organizations that joined our brief. For example, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) focuses chiefly on evangelism. Although BGEA conducts regular devotional activities for its employees and provides religious instruction to people through many means and media; it does not conduct regular worship services like a local church, nor does it teach in a typical classroom setting like a Christian school. Some of BGEA’s employees, like their evangelists, fit comfortably into most definitions of a minister; while some of their other employees do not, like those who run associated evangelical ministries. All of these employees are instrumental to the organization’s religious mission.
Another example is Samaritan’s Purse. This organization focuses on reaching out to those in need by providing them with material assistance, as well as presenting the gospel message. All Samaritan’s Purse employees are actively involved in the organization’s ministry, serving as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ as they serve others. Thus, Samaritan’s Purse requires its employees to commit to its Statement of Faith and Code of Christian Conduct. Neither BGEA nor Samaritan’s Purse are explicitly a school or a church, but they both perform ministries that serve explicit religious purposes. They know which employees will be best to serve their organizations; the government does not. If the Court adopts Justice Thomas’ approach, BGEA and Samaritan’s Purse, along with other organizations like them, will be free to hire and fire employees who will best further the objectives of their ministries, free to practice their First Amendment rights.
Does a religious school or the government get to choose who can teach religion to children? Furthermore, does a religious organization or the government get to hire and fire employees? The Supreme Court will announce the answer to this question soon. These cases were argued on May 11, 2020. If the Court rules in favor of the former teachers the ramifications are significant. In effect, this decision would allow the government to control the churches, church-affiliated ministries, and parachurch ministries—something that is contrary to the rights of Americans established in the First Amendment. The question of whether the ministerial exception applies to a teacher at a religious school, involves a much bigger question. These cases deal with the very freedom to exercise religion. This is why the National Legal Foundation submitted these friend-of-the-court briefs—to stand up for the freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution.