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Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru

This episode of the Supreme Opinion Podcast features the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, a recent important SCOTUS case related to religious freedom and the “ministerial exception” in employment discrimination. The Supreme Opinion Podcast is sponsored by Crushendo.

"When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow."

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Syllabus (or summary from the Court)

The First 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.” Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in North America. Applying this principle, this Court held in Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, that the First Amendment barred a court from entertaining an employment discrimination claim brought by an elementary school teacher, Cheryl Perich, against the religious school where she taught. Adopting the so-called “ministerial exception” to laws governing the employment relationship between a religious institution and certain key employees, the Court found relevant Perich’s title as a “Minister of Religion, Commissioned,” her educational training, and her responsibility to teach religion and participate with students in religious activities. Id., at 190–191.

In these cases, two elementary school teachers at Roman Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles had teaching responsibilities similar to Perich’s. Agnes Morrissey-Berru taught at Our Lady of Guadalupe School (OLG), and Kristen Biel taught at St. James School. Both were employed under nearly identical agreements that set out the schools’ mission to develop and promote a Catholic School faith community; imposed commitments regarding religious instruction, worship, and personal modeling of the faith; and explained that teachers’ performance would be reviewed on those bases. Each was also required to comply with her school’s faculty handbook, which set out similar expectations. Each taught religion in the classroom, worshipped with her students, prayed with her students, and had her performance measured on religious bases.

Both teachers sued their schools after their employment was terminated. Morrissey-Berru claimed that OLG had demoted her and had failed to renew her contract in order to replace her with a younger teacher in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. OLG invoked Hosanna-Tabor’s “ministerial exception” and successfully moved for summary judgment, but the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that Morrissey-Berru did not fall within the exception because she did not have the formal title of “minister,” had limited formal religious training, and did not hold herself out publicly as a religious leader. Biel alleged that St. James discharged her because she had requested a leave of absence to obtain breast cancer treatment. Like OLG, St. James obtained summary judgment under the “ministerial exception.” But the Ninth Circuit reversed, reasoning that Biel lacked Perich’s credentials, religious training, and ministerial background.

Held: The First Amendment’s Religion Clauses foreclose the adjudication of Morrissey-Berru’s and Biel’s employment-discrimination claims.

(a) The independence of religious institutions in matters of “faith and doctrine” is closely linked to independence in what the Court has termed “‘matters of church government.’” Hosanna Tabor. For this reason, courts are bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions.

(b) When the “ministerial exception” reached this Court in Hosanna Tabor, the Court looked to precedent and the “background” against which “the First Amendment was adopted,” Hosanna Tabor, at 183, and unanimously recognized that the Religion Clauses foreclose certain employment-discrimination claims brought against religious organizations, id., at 188.

(c) In Hosanna-Tabor, the Court applied the “ministerial exception” but declined “to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.” Hosanna Tabor, at 190. Instead, the Court identified four relevant circumstances of Perich’s employment at an Evangelical Lutheran school. First, Perich’s church had given her the title of “minister, with a role distinct from that of most of its members.” Id., at 191. Second, her position “reflected a significant degree of religious training followed by a formal process of commissioning.” Ibid. Third, she “held herself out as a minister of the Church” and claimed certain tax benefits. Id., at 191–192. Fourth, her “job duties reflected a role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.” Id.

(d) A variety of factors may be important in determining whether a particular position falls within the ministerial exception. The circumstances that informed the Court’s decision in Hosanna Tabor were relevant because of their relationship to Perich’s “role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.” Hosanna Tabor, at 192. But the recognition of the significance of those factors in Perich’s case did not mean that they must be met in all other cases. What matters is what an employee does. Implicit in the Hosanna-Tabor decision 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 a private religious school’s mission.

(e) Applying this understanding of the Religion Clauses here, it is apparent that Morrissey-Berru and Biel qualify for the exception recognized in Hosanna-Tabor. There is abundant record evidence that they both performed vital religious duties, such as educating their students in the Catholic faith and guiding their students to live their lives in accordance with that faith. Their titles did not include the term “minister” and they had less formal religious training than Perich, but their core responsibilities were essentially the same. And their schools expressly saw them as playing a vital role in carrying out the church’s mission. A religious institution’s explanation of the role of its employees in the life of the religion in question is important.

(f) The Ninth Circuit mistakenly treated the circumstances the Court found relevant in Hosanna-Tabor as a checklist of items to be assessed and weighed against each other. That rigid test produced a distorted analysis. First, it invested undue significance in the fact that Morrissey-Berru and Biel did not have clerical titles. Second, it assigned too much weight to the fact that Morrissey-Berru and Biel had less formal religious schooling that Perich. Third, the St. James panel inappropriately diminished the significance of Biel’s duties. Respondents would make Hosanna-Tabor’s governing test even more rigid. And they go further astray in suggesting that an employee can never come within the Hosanna-Tabor exception unless the employee is a “practicing” member of the religion with which the employer is associated. Deciding such questions risks judicial entanglement in religious issues.

Reversed and remanded.

ALITO, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and THOMAS, BREYER, KAGAN, GORSUCH, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which GORSUCH, J., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, J., joined.

Read the entire opinion

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru (complete opinion)

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