The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that anti-discrimination employment laws do not protect employees at religious institutions, even if they do not primarily serve a ministerial purpose.
The 7-2 decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, in which Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer joined the court’s conservative bloc, could affect more than 100,000 teachers at Catholic primary and secondary school teachers and have rippling effects for other employees at religious groups.
Wednesday’s decision allows institutions to claim the “ministerial exception” and places them beyond the reach of laws such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act. Coming after the recent court decision barring discrimination against LGBTQ employees, the new case exempts religious institutions from abiding by that ruling.
In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor recognizes how the new decision could be weaponized against protected groups.
“When it applies,” she wrote, “the exception is extraordinarily potent: It gives an employer free rein to discriminate because of race, sex, pregnancy, age, disability, or other traits protected by law when selecting or firing their ‘ministers,’ even when the discrimination is wholly unrelated to the employer’s religious beliefs or practices.”
The case was brought by Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Biel, two Catholic school teachers who were fired from their jobs. Morrissey-Berru claimed she suffered age discrimination and Biel said she lost her job after requesting a leave of absence for breast cancer treatment, a disease that eventually caused her death.
Both women taught primary school and taught a variety of subjects, which included religious topics but were mostly secular. Under the new decision, they were both considered “ministers,” expanding the common definition of the word significantly.
The case was especially egregious in depriving the women of legal protections with not even a religious reason for the discrimination, Sotomayor wrote.
“Both Biel and Morrissey-Berru had almost exclusively secular duties,” Justice Sotomayor wrote, “making it especially improper to deprive them of all legal protection when their employers have not offered any religious reason for the alleged discrimination.”
The decision leaves protections for teachers who have no religious responsibilities entirely but does not provide a clear-cut definition of those responsibilities. A physics teacher who also leads prayers, for example, could potentially be stripped of employment law protections, Douglas Laycock, a law professor who supported the religious schools, said.
The decision was a step back for anti-discrimination laws, according to Daniel Mach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
“The Supreme Court had an opportunity to adopt a robust and nuanced test to govern these disputes, one that would have preserved religious institutions’ ability to choose their ministers while also protecting the vast majority of employees from invidious discrimination,” Mach said. “Instead, the court appears to defer largely to the say-so of schools, essentially offering them a rubber stamp for discrimination.”
Sources: The New York Times 07/08/20; Vox 07/08/20; NPR 07/08/20; ACLU 07/08/20.