The US Supreme Court ruled today that teachers in religious schools are not protected by federal anti-discrimination law. Please note that Justice Alita says that the central mission of religious schools is to teach the faith, which is why so many object to public funding of religious schools. If religious schools take public money, are they still exempt from public laws that cover public schools?

David Savage wrote for the Los Angeles Times:

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday restricted teachers who work at church-run schools from filing discrimination claims against their employers, ruling that the Constitution’s protection for religious liberty exempts church schools from state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

The justices, by a 7-2 vote, ruled that because two elementary school teachers at Catholic schools in Los Angeles County helped carry out the mission of teaching faith as part of their jobs, the schools are free to hire and fire them without concern for antidiscrimination laws.

The decision effectively closes the courthouse door to tens of thousands of teachers nationwide in religious and parochial schools who encounter workplace discrimination based on their gender, age, disability or sexual orientation that would otherwise be impermissible. It is also written broadly enough that it could include many other types of workers at the schools, such as counselors, nurses, coaches and office workers.

In the past, the Supreme Court has recognized an implied “ministerial exemption” that shields churches, synagogues or other religious bodies from being sued by priests, pastors and other ministers. The issue in the pair of cases from Southern California was whether that exemption extended more broadly to teachers in a church-run school whose primary duty was not necessarily religious instruction.

“The 1st Amendment protects the right of religious institutions to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority.

“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,” he continued. “Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the 1st Amendment does not tolerate.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

Kristen Biel was a fifth-grade teacher at St. James School in Torrance whose teaching contract was canceled shortly after she told the principal she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She later sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects employees from discrimination based solely on a disease like cancer. She died last year, but her husband, Darryl Biel, has maintained the suit.

Agnes Morrissey-Berru had taught fifth grade at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Hermosa Beach for decades when the principal suggested she may want to retire. She refused, and her teaching contract was not renewed. She then sued, alleging age discrimination.

Lawyers for the Catholic Archdiocese said the suits should be dismissed, citing the ministerial exception recognized by the high court. Two federal district judges agreed, but the 9th Circuit Court cleared both suits to proceed, ruling that neither teacher was a religious leader at school.

In dissent, Sotomayor called the court’s ruling “simplistic” because it allows a church to decide which of its employees are central to its religious mission and therefore not covered by antidiscrimination laws.

“That stretches the law and logic past their breaking points,” she said. “The court’s conclusion portends grave consequences.
Thousands of Catholic teachers may lose employment-law protections because of today’s outcome. Other sources tally over a hundred thousand secular teachers whose rights are at risk. And that says nothing of the rights of countless coaches, camp counselors, nurses, social-service workers, in-house lawyers, media-relations personnel, and many others who work for religious institutions. All these employees could be subject to discrimination for reasons completely irrelevant to their employers’ religious tenets.”