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Supreme Court Takes On Employment Bias at Religious Schools

Hey Compliance Warriors!

The separation of church and state has long been a fickle thing in America. But this recent discrimination case is trying to widen the gap further by creating a more fairly balanced teaching environment inside religious academic institutions. Read on…

Article Via: nytimes.com

“WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court heard arguments on Monday on how broadly federal employment discrimination laws apply to schools run by churches in two cases that will give the court another opportunity to rule on the proper relationship between church and state, a topic that has deeply engaged the justices.

The cases, which involve teachers in Catholic schools in California who sued their employers for job discrimination, will require the justices to find a balance between two competing interests: avoiding government interference in the internal affairs of religious groups and protecting the groups’ employees from discrimination.

Eric C. Rassbach, a lawyer for the schools, said courts should not second-guess the judgments of religious groups. “If separation of church and state means anything at all,” he said, “it must mean the government cannot interfere with the church’s decision about who is authorized to teach its religion.”

Jeffrey L. Fisher, a lawyer for two teachers who sued their schools for job discrimination, said the schools’ position was very broad. “The schools’ argument would strip more than 300,000 lay teachers in religious schools across the country of basic employment-law protections,” he said.

In an earlier case, the Supreme Court established a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws for workers engaged in core religious functions. Mr. Rassbach said the teachers, who did not have religious titles or significant formal religious training and who taught religion along with other subjects, were covered by the exception.

One of the teachers, Kristen Biel, sued under the Americans With Disabilities Act after she learned she had breast cancer and her contract was not renewed. (She died last year.) The other, Agnes Morrissey-Berru, sued for age discrimination after her own contract was not renewed.

Federal trial judges dismissed both cases, saying the ministerial exception protected the schools. But the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, reversed those rulings, allowing the cases to proceed.

In separate decisions, the appeals court said the teachers were not covered by the ministerial exception because they were not considered ministers by either themselves or their employers, as reflected in their job titles.

At Monday’s argument, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked whether the ministerial exception applied to all school employees. Mr. Rassbach said that some, like janitors and workers providing technology support, were not covered. Coaches, he said, presented a harder question, with the answer depending on how they did their work.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. urged the court to focus on the “very specific case” before it. “The function of teaching a religion to new generations is central,” he said, suggesting that the teachers before the court were covered by the exception.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said he was wary of judicial entanglement in religious affairs. “Why can’t we just simply say that a sincerely held religious belief about who is a minister should control?” he asked.

But Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the schools were making a sweeping argument, one that applied to all sorts of laws governing the workplace. “You’re asking for something broader than giving the schools the power to hire or fire certain kinds of people because of how they teach religion,” she told Mr. Rassbach.

Justice Ginsburg said that “the breadth of the exemption is staggering.”

“To take a sharp example, suppose a teacher who does everything the two teachers in these cases do, as a faith leader, also reports a student’s complaint of sexual harassment by a priest and is terminated, has no remedy?” she asked.

Morgan L. Ratner, a lawyer for the federal government arguing in support of the schools, said retaliation claims may be treated differently from others.

The ministerial exception, the court said in a unanimous 2012 decision, was needed to ensure that churches and other religious groups were free to choose and dismiss employees who perform religious work without government interference.

In that decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. described the balance the court was striking.

“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” he wrote. “But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.”

The 2012 case concerned Cheryl Perich, who had been a teacher at a Lutheran school in Michigan. Ms. Perich said she was fired for pursuing an employment discrimination claim based on a disability, narcolepsy.

Ms. Perich was a “called” teacher who had completed religious training and whom the school considered a minister. The Supreme Court ruled that she was subject to the exception and could not sue.

The cases argued Monday — Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267, and St. James School v. Darryl Biel, No. 19-348 — are the latest in a series considering the relationship between church and state. It has ruled in recent years that a state must let a church participate in a government program, that a war memorial in the shape of a cross could remain on public property and that town boards may start their meetings with sectarian prayers.

The court will soon decide whether states may exclude religious schools from state programs that provide scholarships to students attending private schools. In its next term, starting in October, the court will consider whether Philadelphia may exclude a Catholic agency that does not work with same-sex couples from the city’s foster care system.”

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Lisa Smith is CEO of Andere Corporation and Chief Content Developer at HelpDeskSuites.com. Follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn, listen to her Small Business Spoonfuls Podcast, and find more in her Compliance Warriors Facebook Group.

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