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Supreme Court case to test Catholic schools' immunity from employee lawsuits

By Don Jacobson
The Supreme Court on Wednesday accepted a case testing the limits of Catholic schools' immunity to employee lawsuits. File photo by Mike Theiler/UPI
The Supreme Court on Wednesday accepted a case testing the limits of Catholic schools' immunity to employee lawsuits. File photo by Mike Theiler/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 18 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to hear a pair of cases testing the limits of religious schools to shield themselves from employment lawsuits on First Amendment grounds.

The court announced it will hear appeals on two similar cases involving former Catholic school teachers in Los Angeles who claim they were illegally fired. The two suits -- Our Lady Of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Darryl Biel -- will be combined for the hearing.

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In one case, Agnes Morrissey-Berru sued Our Lady of Guadalupe School claiming its 2015 decision to not renew her teaching contract was made on the basis of her age. In the other case, the widower of teacher Kristen Biel asserted St. James School's fired her in 2014 because she was ill with breast cancer in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

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The schools argued they were legally immune due to the provisions of the so-called ministerial exception. Established in 2012 and based on First Amendment principles, it holds that religious school teachers are in effect "ministers" carrying out duties of the church who cannot sue their employers.

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Morrissey-Berru claimed she was not a practicing Catholic and was in no way acting as a "minister," while Biel asserted that while she was Catholic, her faith was not a requirement of the job.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco agreed, but the schools appealed to the high court.

Attorneys for Our Lady of Guadaloupe argued in their Supreme Court filing that existing precedents firmly establish the criteria needed to apply ministerial exception, and that the school had met them. They claimed Morrissey-Berru, by teaching core Catholic doctrine and leading class prayers, was indeed acting as a minister of the church.

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