Supreme Court strengthens religious protection from discrimination lawsuits

The case involved Roman Catholic schools in Southern California that were sued after deciding not to renew contracts for two teachers.
Image: A cross hangs on the wall next to a U.S. flag in an empty classroom at Quigley Catholic High School in Baden, Pa.
A classroom at Quigley Catholic High School in Baden, Pa.Jessie Wardarski / AP file

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By Pete Williams

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday strengthened legal protections that shield religious institutions from job discrimination lawsuits.

It was the court's second ruling this term intended to expand religious freedom. In a previous 5-4 ruling along traditional ideological lines, the justices said states cannot exclude religiously affiliated schools from state scholarship programs, a decision that further lowered the wall of separation between church and state.

"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," wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the 7-2 majority. "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."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissent for herself and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said the ruling is based on a simplistic approach that "has no basis in law and strips thousands of schoolteachers of their legal protections."

A 2012 Supreme Court ruling protects churches, the schools they run, and other religious organizations from lawsuits brought by employees who perform a "ministerial" function. Allowing such suits, the court said then, would invite government interference in a religious institution's internal affairs.

Wednesday's ruling involved Roman Catholic schools in southern California that were sued after deciding not to renew contracts for two teachers. Agnes Morrissey-Berru sued Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach for age discrimination when her contract was terminated, and Kristen Biel sued St. James School in Torrance when her contract wasn't renewed after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She said the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In both cases, the churches said they were protected from discrimination lawsuits. But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco refused to throw the cases out, ruling that even though the teachers taught some religious subjects, their duties were not ministerial. Morrissey-Berru is not a practicing Catholic and was not required to attend any religious training for most of the time she taught at Our Lady of Guadalupe.

She never led any religious services, never selected hymns at mass and never delivered a sermon. In no way, she argued, did she act as any mind of minister. Biel was Catholic, but her faith was not a requirement for teaching at the school. She, too, said she never performed any ministerial functions.

The court earlier already agreed to hear another religious freedom case during its next term that begins in the fall. The justices will take up a dispute between the city of Philadelphia and a Catholic charity over the suitability of same-sex parents to provide foster care. The court must again decide when enforcement of laws against discrimination goes too far, violating religious freedom.