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The Supreme Court Closes the Courthouse Doors on Religious School Teachers

July 22, 2020


Recently the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru, and St. James School v. Biel. Each case was brought before the court appealing losses in the Ninth Circuit.

The matter at issue is whether the First Amendment allows the courts to intervene in employment decisions of religious organizations and institutions. More to the point, can the courts settle employment disputes between religious schools and their teachers, who are charged with furthering the institution's religious mission, goals, and teaching the faith to their students?

The Appellate decisions in the Ninth Circuit determined that teachers who otherwise have no special religious training and who do not hold themselves out as “ministers” or as leaders of the faith do not fall within the Court's “ministerial exception”. The Supreme Court took the matter up in order to provide clarity of its ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch.v.Equal Emp't Opportunity Comm'n. Plain and simply put: Hosanna-Tabor was not and is not meant to be a rigidly applied test requiring an employee to have the title of "minister".


"The 'ministerial exception' is recognized to guarantee a church's freedom from government interference in deciding how best to manage matters of 'faith and doctrine', including employment decisions involving key players in spreading the church's mission of faith."

The doctrine of religious freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution are represented in the ministerial exception. The basis for this exception is the belief that only a church or its school knows best how to govern those whom it has charged with the task of furthering their mission and raising their youth as members of the religion. These are goals and duties which each religion takes seriously.

The argument on behalf of the exception is that absent its protections, churches might not be able to take corrective action against ministers who are failing their sacred duties of providing a religious education to their youth. Civil courts are not in a position to determine who is better suited to teach which religions and so employees should not be allowed to seek judicial redress for employment disputes.


In 2012, the Court ruled in Hosanna-Tabor that a school teacher who was an ordained minister, who held herself out as a minister, received special religious training in order to become a minister, took the tax benefits of same, and oversaw the religious education of her students fell within ministerial exception. The Court further stated that by considering these factors it was simply using them as evidence to support the application of the ministerial exception. It was "not announc[ing] 'a rigid formula' for determining whether an employee falls within this exception".

If an employee had to have the title of "minister" in order for the ministerial exception to apply, then many religions would lose the First Amendment protections afforded by the rule. Justice Alito spends a bit of time explaining the origins of the First Amendment's religious protections and why it is important that the civil courts not intervene in how religions self-govern themselves.

Justice Alito explained why the title "minister" itself was not necessary for the exception to apply, particularly because many religions do not have positions with the title of "minister" thought they might crudely be compared to a minister. Others refer to all their members as "ministers" but do not intend to import any leadership significance at the same time. Ultimately, he concludes that the title itself is not so much what matters as what the employee is charged with doing.

"In short, these circumstances, while instructive in HosannaTabor, are not inflexible requirements and may have far less significance in some cases. What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does. And implicit in our decision in Hosanna-Tabor was a recognition that educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school."


The employees in the cases at question were both Catholic grade school teachers. Neither one held a title similar to "minister". And neither one received any special religious education. Neither held themselves out to the community as leaders of their churches. Morrisey-Berru even claimed that she was not a practicing Catholic in her pleadings.

The District Court in both cases ruled in favor of the Defendant schools in finding that the Plaintiffs were barred from bringing an employment action against their respective religious schools on the basis of the ministerial exception. The Ninth Circuit overturned both decisions by rigidly applying the Hosanna-Tabor factors. The schools appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justice Alito looked to the employee handbooks and agreements between the parties for guidance on determining whether the employees' duties qualified their roles for the ministerial exception or not. Their employee handbooks and agreements were nearly identical, both being Catholic grade schools in Southern California.

“There is abundant record evidence that [Morrisey-Berru and Biel] performed vital religious duties. Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught, and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility. As elementary school teachers responsible for providing instruction in all subjects, including religion, they were the members of the school staff who were entrusted most directly with the responsibility of educating their students in the faith.”

Finding ample evidence in the record that both employees performed roles that were vital to the religious instruction of their students, the Court ruled that both Morrisey-Berru's age discrimination and Biel's disability discrimination claims are barred under the ministerial exception. Due to the schools making it clear in their employment agreements that teachers are to have their performance evaluated in part on their ability to lead their students in religious matters, to "model the faith life", and to train their students "to live their faith" it seems that the Courthouse doors have been permanently shut to religious school teachers in discrimination matters.

However, a closer reading of the decision reveals that the basis for the termination of both Morrisey-Berru and Biel was "classroom performance". Though one would be fighting an uphill battle to suggest that a religious school teacher's classroom performance was not a matter closely tied to the church and school's religious mission and goals; a church or school should have an equally hard time convincing a court that a teacher's termination based on race or a teacher's suffering sexual harassment are complaints barred by the ministerial exception. I have a feeling that these won't be the last lawsuits we see filed against a religious school by a teacher.