High Court Backs Catholic Schools

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by Paul Murano  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  July 10, 2020   

Autonomy of internal management decisions protected

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WASHINGTON (ChurchMilitant.com) - The U.S. Supreme Court is allowing Catholic schools to fire employees who publicly violate Catholic teaching.

Justice Samuel Alito

The High Court ruled 7–2 on Wednesday to block governments from meddling with the internal affairs of religious schools and organizations. Anti-discrimination laws, the judges ruled, do not apply in the hiring and firing of personnel at religious schools and organizations.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority that the First Amendment protects the right of religious institutions "to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine." Alito, however, recognized this principle is not absolute, adding that while religious institutions do not enjoy "a general immunity from secular laws," their autonomy is protected with "respect to internal management decisions."

While religious institutions do not enjoy 'a general immunity from secular laws,' their autonomy is protected with 'respect to internal management decisions.'

Joining Alito in the majority decision were Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Chief Justice John Roberts.

Two Cases Considered

The Supreme Court combined two religious liberty cases in its ruling Wednesday — Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel. In each case, the plaintiff claimed unjust discrimination in their firing. The court rejected this based on a "ministerial exception" enjoyed by religious organizations. This means, according to the High Court, the First Amendment affords religious schools leeway in their internal affairs in accordance with their faith.

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The unique mission and purpose of a religious school is something Alito sees as important.

"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 Alito. "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."

The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools.

The Court recognized a "ministerial exception" for the first time eight years ago in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, et al. The justices said teachers in religious schools, commissioned to uphold their institution's religious faith, could be considered a "minister." Wednesday's ruling extends this ministerial exception to Catholic schools.

(L to R) Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor

Although Catholic teachers do not have the official title "minister," the court recognizes their work is to pass on their religion in a way that matches the school's mission. As Alito claims, although the two teachers in question did not have the title of "ministers," there is "abundant record evidence that they both performed vital religious duties."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in dissenting from the decision. Sotomayor noted that while the teachers taught religion "for a part of some days in the week" it should not "transform them automatically into ministers." Hence, she concludes, the "ministerial exception" does not apply in this case.

Adèle Keim, an attorney with the religious freedom legal group Becket, is happy with the decision. She claims the court's ruling reinforces the idea that "government should not be in the business of telling religious schools who is qualified to teach the faith to their students."

Adèle Keim, an attorney with Becket

This principle is important in cases of sexuality and morality, especially since the Supreme Court last month ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that employers cannot fire employees on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Keim notes, however, the majority ruling in Bostock acknowledged a special set of legal doctrines that operate in the case of religious organizations. They explicitly mention ministerial exception as one of them.

"There's a protected sphere that gives religious organizations independence in deciding who's going to carry out core religious functions. And so Title VII doesn't come in there," Keim explains. "If you can show that the employee is carrying out important religious functions, then that's an area where the state just has to stay out."

The court concluded Wednesday that "when a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school's independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow."

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