SCOTUS to hear Catholic school religious freedom cases
by Christine Rousselle
Washington D.C., Dec 18, 2019 / 06:00 pm (CNA).- The U.S. Supreme Court will decide two religious freedom cases concerning Catholic schools during its upcoming term, the court announced on Wednesday, Dec. 18.
The court consolidated the cases Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel, and will consider them together.
Both lawsuits concern teachers at Catholic schools who did not have their contracts renewed, apparently after poor performance. In one case, a teacher sued, claiming age discrimination, and in the other, sued claiming that she was discriminated against rights established by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Parents trust Catholic schools to assist them in one of their most important duties: forming the faith of their children,” Montserrat Alvarado, vice president and executive director at Becket, the law firm providing counsel in both cases, said in a statement to CNA.
“If courts can second-guess a Catholic school’s judgment about who should teach religious beliefs to fifth graders, then neither Catholics nor any other religious group can be confident in their ability to convey the faith to the next generation,” she added.
The “ministerial exception,” which permits a church or school to hire and fire teachers to their liking, was expanded in the 2012 Supreme Court decision Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. In that decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the firing of a teacher at a Lutheran school was not unlawful due to the religious nature of the school.
In the cases in question, courts disagreed that the teachers were in “ministerial” roles at the school. In the Our Lady of Guadalupe School case, Agnes Morrissey-Berru, a teacher at the school in Hermosa Beach, CA, taught religion and led students in prayer. In 2015, her teaching contract expired and was not renewed. She claimed her contract was not renewed because of her age; the school says that she was not a good teacher and received complaints. The Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of Morrissey-Berru.
Kristin Biel was a fifth-grade teacher at St. James Catholic School in Torrance, California. Her contract was not renewed. She claims that the school opted not to renew her contract after she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. As with Our Lady of Guadalupe School, the Ninth Circuit also ruled in favor of Biel and against the school.
Biel was the only fifth-grade teacher at the Catholic school, yet was judged by the court not to have a “ministerial” role in the faith formation of her students.
Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement provided to CNA that he is “confident” that the schools will win at the Supreme Court.
“Under our Constitution, government officials cannot control who teaches kids what to believe,” said Rassbach.
“Do we really want judges, juries, or bureaucrats deciding who ought to teach Catholicism at a parish school, or Judaism at a Jewish day school? Of course not,” he added.
“Religion teachers play a vital role in the ecosystem of faith.”