Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Who decides who is a minister?

Once again the SCOTUS is facing several cases which will affect who is considered a minister of religion and what rights both teachers and church schools have with respect to employment.  The two cases hinge on what defines the constitutional status of a “minister” at a religious school and  who decides the qualifications of a minister: churches and religious schools, or the federal courts.   The cases are Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel.

In Hosanna-Tabor (2012), a teacher at a Lutheran elementary school was diagnosed and subsequently fired for having narcolepsy. Suing under the Americans With Disability Act, she claimed that the school had illegally discriminated against her on account of her condition. When the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) upheld her suit, she appealed. The school claimed a Free Exercise “ministerial exemption” from employment laws, and the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the school. The fourth-grade teacher was a trained and certified instructor of religion, which she taught everyday in addition to academic subjects.

In that decision the SCOTUS recognized for the first time a ministerial exception (though lower federal courts had previously done so). This ruling sat side by side the 1990  Employment Division v. Smith decision regarding the use of peyote.  This decision came even though the Obama Administration Justice Department (DOJ) argued against the school and maintained that the Free Exercise of religion did not even apply. Justice Roberts, writing for the unanimous Court, reprimanded DOJ for its “extreme position” that “the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.”  This decision was, by the way, unanimous.

The details on these pending cases are different though similar.  Two fired teachers in Roman Catholic schools in the same LA Archdiocese have claimed discrimination. In the Guadalupe case, the Roman Catholic elementary school fired a trained and certified catechist and who had taught fifth grade religion for several years.  She filed an age-discrimination complaint with the EEOC and brought suit in federal district court in December 2016. The district court ruled against her citing the Hosanna-Tabor precedent but the Ninth Circuit ruled in her favor.

In the St. James School case, another Roman Catholic school fired a newly hired 5th grade teacher who was also a trained and certified as teacher of the faith.  She was let go for poor management of the classroom and filed a complaint with the EEOC, alleging discrimination for her disability (breast cancer). The Obama EEOC sided with the teacher, the federal district court cited Hosanna-Tabor and ruled against her in January 2017 and again was overturned by the Ninth Circuit.

The questions at issue are how much of a minister do you have to be and who decides if you are a minister.  Though Hosanna-Tabor had provided more detail to support their claim, the cases will clarify the precedent and decide if churches and their schools are the ones who decide who is defined as a minister or not and by what criteria such claims can credibly be made.  Stay tuned for more as oral arguments have already been made.


Carl Vehse said...

Rev. John Hohe (Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church, Powell, OH) stated in a February 9, 2012, comment to a Concordia Theology blog article, "Second Thoughts on the Supreme Court and Church Workers":

Bruce and others, I do agree.

This case should NEVER have gotten this far! It is a failure of all parties but from what I know it seems like the District and the congregation may share the great responsibility. The fact that this case went as far as it did is that this treatment of the worker would not have been tolerated in the work place or at least she would have had full redress legally. The fact that the church won at the expense of the worker is a LOUSY WITNESS TO THE WORLD. And ultimately I think that trumps all claims otherwise to be “right.”

Carl Vehse said...

A SCOTUS decision came out today, July 8, 2020, in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru (together with St. James School v. Biel, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Biel).

Agnes Morrissey-Berru had claimed age discrimination when demoted, replaced with a younger person, and her contract not renewed. Kristen Biel had alleged that St. James discharged her from her contract because she had requested a leave of absence to obtain breast cancer treatment. Initial courts had ruled against the plaintiffs, citing the Hosanna-Tabor decision. However, the Ninth Court of Appeals had reversed these decisions on the grounds that Morrissey-Berru and Biel were contract fifth-grade teachers and lacked the ministerial credentials of Cheryl Perich, certified by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and called by an LCMS congregation as a Commissioned Minister/Teacher.

Justice Alito, writing for the majority, stated:

"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. Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate."

Thus, under the First Amendment, a church school has the legal right to designate or describe any of its (ordained, commissioned or contracted) teachers as a minister and then fire them for any (even discriminatory) reason whatsoever (and regardless of whether the church follows its own doctrinal or Third Use of the Law principles), and the employee has no secular legal recourse.