July 8 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that religious schools that fire teachers are shielded from civil suits alleging discrimination, in a broad expansion of the "ministerial exemption" definition.
In a 7-2 decision, the high court ruled in favor of two grade-school teachers who were fired from Catholic schools in Southern California -- determining that they're covered by the exemption that protects religious institutions from claims of discrimination by former "ministers."
The exemption was established by a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that said such civil suits could invite government interference and violate religious institutions' First Amendment protections.
Attorneys for the teachers argued, however, that the two were lay employees -- not ministers -- who'd been dismissed unlawfully.
Agnes Morissey-Berru brought an age discrimination case against Our Lady of Guadalupe School, and Darryl Biel argued in a separate suit that the St. James School fired his cancer-stricken wife. Both institutions are located in Los Angeles County.
Justice Samuel Alito said the teachers' job duties could not be separated from the institutions' core religious functions and, therefore, must fall under the ministerial exemption.
"The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools," he wrote for the majority. "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."
"Other sources tally over a hundred thousand secular teachers whose rights are at risk," Sotomayor wrote. "And that says nothing of the rights of countless coaches, camp counselors, nurses, social-service workers, in-house lawyers, media-relations personnel, and many others who work for religious institutions.
"All these employees could be subject to discrimination for reasons completely irrelevant to their employers' religious tenets."
Supporters hailed Wednesday's decision, while critics said it allows religious employers to effectively ignore employment laws.
"Religious groups, which control the vast majority of private schools, multiple private universities, and a growing number of medical facilities and hospitals, can now hire and fire employees at will, discriminating without reservation," Robyn Blumner, president of the secular educational organization Center for Inquiry, said in an emailed statement.
"The last thing government officials should do is decide who is authorized to teach Catholicism to Catholics or Judaism to Jews," countered attorney Eric Rassbach, who argued the schools' case. "We are glad the court has resoundingly reaffirmed that churches and synagogues, not government, control who teaches kids about God."
"Religious schools play an integral role in passing the faith to the next generation of believers," Adrian Alarcon, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Catholic Schools, added in a statement. "We are grateful that the Supreme Court recognized faith groups must be free to make their own decisions about who should be entrusted with these essential duties."