Supreme Court tackles whether teachers at religious schools are 'ministers'

By Pamela Manson
The U.S. Supreme Court has postponed arguments because of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
The U.S. Supreme Court has postponed arguments because of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

April 8 (UPI) -- A pair of cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court involving discrimination claims by teachers fired by Catholic schools could have such a significant impact on religious institutions and their employees that several hundred groups and individuals are weighing in.

More than 40 friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed in the consolidated cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School vs. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School vs. Biel, which center on whether the teachers are barred by the "ministerial exception" from bringing employment discrimination claims against their employers.


Under the exception, religious institutions have the ability to choose their own leaders without government interference, and employees who qualify as "ministers" are not protected by employment discrimination laws. The exemption, which is based on the First Amendment's religion clauses, stems from a 2012 Supreme Court decision in a similar case.


Both teachers taught fifth grade at Catholic parish schools in Los Angeles County. Kristen Biel worked in Torrance at St. James School, which had a recommendation -- but not a requirement -- that its teachers be Catholic. (Biel was Catholic).

In addition to teaching all academic subjects, Biel also taught a half-hour religion class four times a week by following instructions in a workbook. She accompanied her students to a multipurpose room for mass once a month and her job was to keep the class settled and quiet, according to court documents.

Biel learned toward the end of her first full year of teaching that she had breast cancer and told school administrators she would need to take time off for treatment. A short time later, she was told the school would not renew her contract.

Her one teaching evaluation had been generally positive but Biel was told her classroom management was "not strict" and it wasn't fair for children to have two teachers during the school year, court documents say.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who worked at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Hermosa for 16 years, taught academic subjects and a religion class. The school also preferred, but did not require, that its teachers be Catholic; Morrissey-Berru is Catholic.


Morrissey-Berru occasionally said a classroom prayer with the students for an ill parent, brought her students to a cathedral once a year to serve at the altar and directed the annual school Easter play, a brief says. In addition, her contract in her final year directed her to "assist with liturgy planning for school mass."

In 2014, when Morrissey-Berru was in her 60s, the school's principal expressed dissatisfaction with her classroom instruction and asked if she wanted to retire. After the teacher said no, she was demoted to part-time and her contract was not renewed the following year, court records say.

Biel and Morrissey-Berru sued and claimed, respectively, violation of the Americans with Disability Act and age discrimination. In both cases, a federal judge said the ministerial exception barred the suit.

Separate panels of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed those rulings after considering whether the school held out the teacher as a minister by bestowing a formal religious title, whether her title reflected ministerial training, whether the teacher held herself out as a minister and whether her duties included important religious functions.

The schools appealed to the Supreme Court, which was slated to hear the cases April 1 but postponed the arguments because of the coronavirus pandemic. Biel died June 7, and her husband, Darryl Biel, became the plaintiff in the case.


'Ministerial exception'

Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel for the nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the schools, said Biel and Morrisey fell under the ministerial exception.

"This case is about two teachers who taught religion class," he said. "You look at the functions the teachers perform at the school. You don't use a stopwatch."

In addition, Blomberg said every subject "was imbued by Catholic faith."

Attorneys for Biel and Morrisey-Berru counter that the teachers were lay employees and their religious duties were limited. Just as teaching fifth-grade science out of textbooks did not make them scientists, "teaching religion from a pre-set curriculum did not render them ministers," the attorneys argue in a brief.

"The schools here did not hire Biel or Morrissey-Berru to preach the Catholic Church's message or to be spiritual leaders," the brief says. "The schools did not even require respondents to be Catholic -- meaning the schools themselves did not consider their religion-teaching responsibilities so central to the church's spiritual mission as to require them to be members of the faith."

Schools, churches, religious groups, advocacy organizations, think tanks, clergy and law professors have joined in the debate over the ministerial exception.

Organizations weigh in

The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and 40 individual schools say in their brief that the exception should apply to any employee who serves a religious function, without regard to the time spent performing that function or reliance on formal training or ministerial titles. The Supreme Court should adopt a "deferential functional approach" and allow a faith to determine what is an important religious function, according to the brief.


"As Shakespeare would say, a rose remains a rose," the brief says. "And while words and titles are abstract, malleable and subject to interpretation, functions like 'transmitting the faith to the next generation' are concrete, unchangeable and readily observed or studied."

The National Women's Law Center, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 68 other organizations object to that approach, saying it would dramatically expand the number of employees who would be stripped of their civil rights protections, including secretaries, maintenance workers, librarians and food service workers.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Medical Women's Association say more than 1 million healthcare workers at religious hospitals around the country also would immediately lose those protections.

"The doctors, nurses and support staff that work at these hospitals come from diverse religious and non-religious backgrounds and in most cases, with the exception of hospital chaplains, did not seek out their jobs with the understanding that they would be acting in a ministerial capacity," their brief says.

States are split on the issue, with 16 plus the District of Columbia siding with the teachers and 17 urging the Supreme Court to rule in favor of the schools. The United States, through the Solicitor General, and 29 members of Congress support the position taken by Our Lady of Guadalupe School and St. James School.


One brief was filed "in support of neither party." The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Southern California, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Anti-Defamation League say the ministerial exception serves important purposes "but has profound implications for ministerial employees, who may face unfettered discrimination without legal recourse."

Their brief notes differences in the two cases, pointing out that Morrissey-Berru led students in prayer and was in charge of liturgy planning for mass. In Biel's classroom, the students led prayers and her involvement in mass was supervisory, "indistinguishable from the role she would have played in bringing students to, say, a Veterans Day assembly," the brief says.

"The ministerial exception should apply only if the totality of the circumstances establishes that the employee is a minister of the faith," the organizations say.

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