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Supreme Court hears cases on Catholic schools firing teachers

The Supreme Court began oral arguments Monday in cases involving claims of discrimination in firing of two Catholic school teachers. The schools argue religious exemption from such claims. File Photo by Roger L. Wollenberg/UPI
The Supreme Court began oral arguments Monday in cases involving claims of discrimination in firing of two Catholic school teachers. The schools argue religious exemption from such claims. File Photo by Roger L. Wollenberg/UPI | License Photo

May 11 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court heard arguments Monday for a pair of cases involving whether teachers fired from Catholic schools were minsters, which would give them religious exemption from discrimination claims.

Oral arguments over whether teachers qualify as ministers began Monday and a decision is likely by June, The Hill reported. The schools claim the teachers were "ministers," and the "ministerial exception" for religious functions gives them immunity from the suits under the First Amendment.

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Justice Sonia Sotomayor told one school's lawyer the schools need to explain why the "ministerial exception" applies so broadly.

"You're asking for something broader than giving the schools the power to hire or fire certain kinds of people because of how they teach the religion or don't teach it and you haven't explained why it's necessary," she said.

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Justice Neil Gorsuch said both sides questions about where the exception applies are troubling.

"Struggling with where do you draw the line and how much entanglement both sides are going to get us in here in deciding what's an important enough person in a particular faith and how we avoid that difficulty," Gorsuch said.

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The schools argued that there is Supreme Court and lower court precedent showing ministers carry out "important religious functions," and their former employees meet that definition.

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Jeffrey Fisher, a lawyer representing the teachers, argued that they should not be considered ministers even though they had some religious aspects to their jobs.

"The school's argument would strip more than 300,000 lay teachers in religious schools across the country of basic employment law protections and necessarily included in this number are teachers who teach so-called secular classes," Fisher said.

President Donald Trump's administration is siding with the schools, arguing the teachers are ministers, which bars them from bringing discrimination claims.

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The cases stem from two fifth-grade teachers at separate Catholic parish schools in Los Angeles County, who claim they were fired because their employers discriminated against them.

In particular, Agnes Morissey-Berru, who claimed age discrimination, brought the case against Our Lady of Guadalupe School. And Darryl Biel, widower of now-deceased Kristen Biel, brought the suit against St. James School, saying the school fired her in violation of disability laws as she battled cancer.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling, which said the religious exemption barred the suits, prompting the appeal to the Supreme Court.

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