For Immediate Release: July 8, 2020
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director
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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) criticized the Supreme Court’s rulings in the twin cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel as expanding the Ministerial Exception beyond all reasonable and sensible limits, and handing a carte blanche to religious organizations to discriminate free from government oversight.
These cases referenced fifth grade teachers from private, religious schools who had been terminated by their employers. Kristen Biel, a teacher at St. James School saw her contract not renewed after she informed the school she was suffering from breast cancer and brought a case under the Americans with Disabilities Act.* Agnes Morrissey-Berru, a teacher for 16 years at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, filed an age discrimination suit after her contract was not renewed. Both schools claimed they were protected by the Ministerial Exception, a doctrine which shields religious organizations from scrutiny of their decisions to appoint leaders.
“To expand an exemption for ‘ministers of the faith’ to the point that it includes these grade-school teachers is frankly ridiculous,” said Nick Little, CFI’s Vice President and Legal Director. “One of these teachers’ positions was not even limited to members of the school’s faith, so it beggars understanding how her job could have been considered vital to its theological integrity.”
“This doctrine was intended to prevent the government from being able to dictate to churches who could serve as a preacher,” said Robyn Blumner, CFI’s President and CEO. “Here, it’s being used as a wink-and-nod to religious schools so they can safely ignore anti-discrimination laws and leave their fired employees with no legal recourse. So the Supreme Court has yet again chosen to give religious groups the ultimate privilege: immunity from obeying the same laws as everyone else.”
As CFI indicated in its amicus brief to the Court, this decision will impact millions of employees for religious organizations in education, health care, and social services, all of whom may now have been completely removed from the protection of anti-discrimination laws.
“Religious groups, which control the vast majority of private schools, multiple private universities, and a growing number of medical facilities and hospitals, can now hire and fire employees at will, discriminating without reservation,” said Little. “As Justice Ginsburg pointed out, a teacher who reports that one of her students is being sexually harassed by a priest and is fired as a result now has no claim to make that she has been unfairly dismissed. That can’t be what the ministerial exception means!”
* Ms. Biel died from her disease before the case reached the Supreme Court; the case is continued by her widower.