Supreme Court finds 1st Amend. gives protections to religious institutions from employment suits.

It is rainy season at the U.S. Supreme Court right now, meaning that the U.S. Supreme Court is issuing all of its opinions before it takes its summer break. One decision that came down on July 8th, 2020, was the case of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisseyberru. The case has its relevance in the employment spectrum and immunities to religious institutions for some employment causes of action under claims like discrimination undre a protected class.

The Court took on two cases that involved two elementary school teachers at Catholic schools. The Court looked at one Elementary School teacher who was required to teach religion among other subjects. This included to help students understand stories from the bible and identify ways to carry the mission of Jesus and help teach kids to learn and express belief that Jesus is the son of God. It noted the instructor prayed with her students. They also looked at the employment agreement where instructors were to model and promote faith and morals.

The instructor’s contract was not renewed the following year and based on her age and the age of the young instructor they hired in her place, she filed an age discrimination suit.

The second instructor had an employment agreement similar to the other teacher and to teach her students the same about religion as the other instructor. With the other instructor, her contract was also not renewed with the claim it wasn’t renewed because she had requested a leave of absence to obtain treatment for breach cancer. The school claimed it was based off performance.

The issue in both cases is a rule called the “ministerial exception.” The Supreme Court created this exception in the past under the 1st amendment that restricts Congress from creating laws as to the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise. The Court noted that the 1st Amendment protected religious institutions with their autonomy to internal management decisions and selection of individuals who play certain key roles. The Court’s concern is government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church. That is what the the first and fourth and other amendments protect, individuals from government intrusion.

As it pertains to Utah, the Supreme Court cited some religious institutions that have religious education and noted The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a long tradition of religious education, with roots in revelations given to Joseph Smith. See Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints §93:36 (2013). “The Church Board of Education has established elementary, middle, or secondary schools in which both secular and religious instruction is offered.”(citing Berrett, Church Educational System (CES) in 1 Encyclopedia of Mormonism 274, 275 (D. Ludlow ed. 1992).

Under those principles, the ministerial exception makes it so courts are bound to stay out of employment disputes. This includes certain employment discrimination claims, involving those that hold certain important key roles and key decisions with those in those roles. The court in another way worded it as performing “vital religious duties.”

The Court clarified there are no specific facts to consider, but noted that the court should “take all relevant circumstances into account and to determine whether each particular position implicated the fundamental purpose of the exception.”

The issue in this case was whether or not an elementary school teacher was an individual that performed a vital religious duty. With the facts the court outlined to both school teachers, the court found that both elementary school teachers did in fact perform vital religious duties. This barred the individuals to seek recourse based off their discrimination claims.

This was not per-se a ground-breaking decision from the court as they relied on other similar decisions to come to the finding. However, it solidifies more what a ministerial duty is. This decision has an outcome that affects employees in religious institutions and the establishment clause. On the one had, this will affect employees’ inabilities to seek redress for work-site discrimination even if the decision has nothing to do with religion and had a discriminatory intent.

This applies to all individuals that in some fashion teach religion. This could potentially have wide-sweeping effects as many religions and its followers hold a ministerial function even at the smallest local level. On paper, this shouldn’t apply to an accountant still. However, if the accountant has additional duties or is a member of the faith with some local ministerial duties that exception could still apply.

It essentially allows religious institutions to discriminate on its school teachers and potentially college professors without any outside legal recourse. College professors could be a different realm though as many college professors just teach secular classes. However, if the class begins with a prayer, or if the professor still ties in the secular part with religion, there could still be an issue. This could also potentially apply to Title IX and sexual harassment claims on campus where private schools would be immune from Title IX lawsuits.

On the positive side, under the establishment clause, this is a good thing for freedom of religion. The Court did not decide to go in with a scalpel and make some kind of exception to have the courts step-in and decide whether or not an age discrimination or disability discrimination claim was based on a religious decision. In both cases here, it could be argued that the decisions had nothing to do with religion. However, the courts decided to not even allow the argument on the table. If the courts had, then it could create decisions from the lower court to decide what is and what isn’t a religious decision and could potentially eat away at the establishment clause. Also, the court's decision to not even touch it was based on the premise that any court interference would be considered the government getting involved in religion and establishing what religion is.

Also, if the court gave precedent to exceptions to the establishment clause in the case, it could later be used in a completely unrelated matter to make a claim that religious decisions should be subject to some kind of court scrutiny. These decisions give any other decision that have been decided prior less creedence if there has been any court scrutiny in the past related to the establishment of religion.

Here, employees and teachers of religious organizations have to pay the price under the establishment clause, however, in the grand-scheme of things, the decision also protects the establishment clause and a high standard on what laws can regulate religion. Since the establishment clause is an enumerated right in the constitution and discrimination laws are laws created by Congress, the constitution would trump federal laws and rightfully so when it comes to the hierarchy of laws.

However, it would be the hope that religious institutions still implement internal policies and procedures that allow individuals to internally grieve issues and where employees feel they are properly advocated for and that they have a fair process with their grievances.

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