On July 8, 2020, the United States Supreme Court decided Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267, holding that the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception,” under the religion clauses, bars courts from adjudicating two Catholic school teachers’ employment-discrimination lawsuits.
In 2012, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment barred a court from entertaining an employment discrimination claim by a teacher, whose job title was “Minister of Religion, Commissioned.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012). The Supreme Court based its decision on what it called the “ministerial exception,” developed in the lower courts, that barred a court from interfering with the employment relationship between a religious institution and key employees.
Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Biel sued two Catholic elementary schools within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, alleging age and disability discrimination claims, respectively. In each case, the district court granted summary judgment to the school, based on Hosanna-Tabor and the “ministerial exception.” The Ninth Circuit reversed in both cases, concluding that the facts in each case differed from those in Hosanna-Tabor, because the plaintiffs did not have the same titles or religious education and training as in Hosanna-Tabor.
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception” applies to these facts as well, and reasoning that the factors that guided its decision in Hosanna-Tabor were not a “rigid formula” but were instead relevant circumstances that guided its decision. Those factors included the teacher’s title of “minister,” her significant religious training and formal commissioning, that she held herself out as a “minister of the Church” including claiming certain tax benefits, and her job duties in “conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.”
The Supreme Court reasoned that “implicit in its Hosanna-Tabor decision was a recognition that educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith” are part of the very core responsibilities of private religious schools. Applying that fundamental understanding to the facts of Morrissey-Berru’s and Biel’s job responsibilities, the Court concluded that both plaintiffs had vital religious duties in educating their students in the Catholic faith. The Court reached this conclusion despite neither plaintiff having the formal title of minister, which many religions do not use, or having received as much formal religious training as the teacher in Hosanna-Tabor.
Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh joined. Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Gorsuch joined. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg joined.