Catholic school teachers are ‘ministers’, SCOTUS rules

The Supreme Court on Wednesday delivered a long-awaited religious liberty decision on the right of religious schools to hire and fire teachers. The court found in favor of two Catholic schools in California, ruling that a “ministerial exception” to government interference applies to teachers in religious schools.

The ruling came in the consolidated cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel. The justices ruled in a 7-2 decision that teachers at Catholic grade schools qualified for the “ministers exception” established by the court in the 2012 Hosana Tabor case.

“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 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.”

The two California Catholic schools did not renew the contracts of the teachers in 2014 and 2015. In separate cases combined by the Supreme Court, the teachers alleged that their dismissals were based on disability and age, not poor performance. The schools claimed they were exempt from employment discrimination laws under the ministerial exception, the legal doctrine under which government cannot interfere in the employment decisions of churches and religious institutions regarding the hiring and firing of ministers.

In both cases, the teachers’ suits were dismissed by federal courts, and then reinstated by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeal.

When the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the combined case in May, lawyers for the schools argued that “for hours on end over the course of a week,” teachers in Catholic schools were the “primary agents” by which the faith was taught to students. Argument – and questions from the bench – focused on how broadly the ministerial exception could be applied to the employees of religious schools.

The decision comes just weeks after the court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, that employers cannot fire employees because of their sexual orientation or “gender identity.” Justice Neil Gorsuch, who authored the majority opinion in that case, acknowledged that religious freedom cases related to the decision would probably come before the Court in the future.

The decision about who qualifies as a minister could directly impact future cases in which teachers might be dismissed for failing to adhere to Church teachins on same-sex marriage or transgender issues, both of which have been subjects of controversy in recent months.

“Requiring the use of the title [minister] would constitute impermissible discrimination,” the court ruled. Referencing the previous decision in Hosana Tabor, Altio wrote that there must be “a recognition that educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school.”

The verdict also explicitly referenced the policy of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, home to both of the schools designating all teachers in Catholic schools as being effectively ministers.

“Like all teachers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Morrissey-Berru was “considered a catechist,” i.e., “a teacher of religion,” Alito noted in his decision for the majority.

“There is abundant record evidence that [both teachers] performed vital religious duties. Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught, and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility.”

The court concluded 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.”

Joining Alito in the majority decision were Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts. Justices Sotomayer and Ginsburg dissented.

COMING UP: Supreme Court decision on Blaine Amendments a victory for religious freedom, school choice 

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

In a potentially landmark decision for Catholic schools around the country, the Supreme Court on June 30 ruled against a Montana constitutional provision that barred taxpayer funds from going to parochial schools, effectively opening the doors for similar measures in the 37 other states that have such provisions.  

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the final decision for the 5-4 vote in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, marking a long-sought victory for school choice advocates around the country. Chief Justice Roberts said that religious schools must be able to access public benefits if they are made available to secular private schools. 

“A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious,” Roberts wrote. The Constitution “condemns discrimination against religious schools and the families whose children attend them,” he said. 

The provision in Montana’s state constitution prohibiting public funds from going to private schools was originally enacted in 1889 as a Blaine Amendment and was subsequently carried over into the state’s rewritten constitution in 1972. Blaine amendments have their root in 19th-century anti-Catholic bigotry and are currently included in 37 other states’ constitutions. 

Writing in support of Chief Justice Roberts’ decision, Justice Neil Gorsuch, who attended Christ the King Catholic School in Denver, reiterated Roberts’ view on discrimination but also emphasized that the protections afforded by the First Amendment are even broader than what Roberts described. Gorsuch stated that the Free Exercise Clause “protects not just the right to be a religious person, holding beliefs inwardly and secretly; it also protects the right to act on those beliefs outwardly and publicly … Our cases have long recognized the importance of protecting religious actions, not just religious status,” implying the right for families of faith to send their children to faith-based schools if they so choose.  

Brittany Vessely, Executive Director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, lauded the decision and its empowerment of parents and urged Colorado state legislators to reconsider the school choice argument. 

“The Catholic Church teaches that parents ought to be able to choose schools that fit their conscience with their share of government funding – after 30 years of Blaine amendment suppression, parents are finally able to do just that,” Vessely said. “Now it is up to the Colorado legislature to pass school choice and empower parents to choose the best schooling option for their children.” 

Local Archdiocese of Denver leaders and Catholic school administrators were also encouraged by the decision, including Denver Catholic Schools Superintendent Elias Moo. 

[This] Supreme Court ruling is another step in the movement to ensure [that] the primacy of parents and families in the education of their children is honored and enshrined by the rule of law,” Moo said in a statement. “The legacy of the ‘Blaine Amendments’ has been a curse on our nation and the state of Colorado. For years, it has relegated families who seek non-public forms of education, especially faith-driven education, to second-class citizenry by limiting their freedom to pursue what is best for their children and family.  

“Today, the Supreme Court has made clear that true freedom is only realized when parents have all the means at their disposal to choose to send their children to the school that will best serve their children and align to their family’s beliefs and convictions.” 

Moo pointed out how the lack of school choice disproportionately affects low-income families and families of color, and how oftentimes, families “are stuck with either failing schools or putting their child’s educational future up to a game of chance by entering a lottery for an opportunity to enroll their child at a school outside of their neighborhood school.  

“This is a travesty, and I believe it is one of the greatest inequities and injustices that we are faced with today.” 

He echoed Vessely’s call for Colorado’s legislators to enact legislation that would allow for parents to have options when it comes to their child’s education. 

“I would personally make an appeal to our state legislators to consider the legacy they want to leave behind and consider the voters who elected them to office,” Moo said. “Our current legislators can be the generation that abolishes educational inequity and injustice. It will take courage and good will from members on all sides of the aisle, but what an opportunity, in a day and age when partisanship seems to be ruling the day at both the state and federal level, for the legislators of Colorado to come together to show the country a unity that it so desperately needs. How beautiful it would be for that unity to come through a bipartisan legislative effort for the children and families of our great state, in particular those most disadvantaged in our community.” 

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the local Catholic school Justice Neil Gorsuch attended. Justice Gorsuch attended Christ the King Catholic School in Denver. The story has been updated to reflect this. We apologize for the error.