WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Wednesday restricted teachers who work at church-run schools from filing discrimination claims against their employers, ruling that the Constitution's protection for religious liberty exempts church schools from state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
The justices, by a 7-2 vote, ruled that because two elementary school teachers at Catholic schools in Los Angeles County helped carry out the mission of teaching faith as part of their jobs, the schools are free to hire and fire them without concern for anti-discrimination laws.
In the past, the Supreme Court has recognized an implied "ministerial exemption" that shields a church, synagogue or other religious bodies from being sued by priests, pastors and other ministers. The issue in the pair of cases from Southern California was whether that exemption extended more broadly to teachers in a church-run school whose primary duty was not necessarily religious instruction.
"The 1st 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," Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority.
"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," he continued. "Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the 1st Amendment does not tolerate."
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
Kristen Biel was a fifth grade teacher at St. James School in Torrance whose teaching contract was canceled shortly after she told the principal she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She later sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects employees from discrimination based solely on a disease like cancer. She died last year, but her husband Darryl Biel has maintained the suit.
Agnes Morrissey-Berru had taught fifth grade at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Hermosa Beach for decades when the principal suggested she may want to retire. She refused, and her teaching contract was not renewed. She then sued, alleging age discrimination.
Lawyers for the Catholic Archdiocese said the suits should be dismissed, citing the ministerial exception recognized by the high court. Two federal district judges agreed, but the 9th Circuit Court cleared both suits to proceed, ruling that neither teacher was a religious leader at school.
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