Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion further defining the contours of the ministerial exception in the context of Christian teachers working in the Christian school environment. This case has important future ramifications for the religious freedoms of all Christian schools to employ teachers and administrators who ascribe to those schools’ missions and statements of belief.
Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel are a pair of cases involving two employees of separate Catholic schools in California, both of whom filed lawsuits against their employers when they learned that that their contracts for the following year would not be renewed. Biel, a fifth-grade teacher, who had informed the school she had breast cancer before she was nonrenewed, sued for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. St. James School alleged that it nonrenewed her contract for poor performance-specifically, failing to observe the planned curriculum and manage her classroom. Morrissey-Berru, also a fifth-grade teacher, alleged age discrimination under the ADEA after she realized she wasn’t going to be rehired. Our Lady alleged it declined to renew her contract because of her inability to adopt a new language curriculum.
Both schools filed for summary judgment to have the respective cases dismissed, arguing that the ministerial exception applied because, as teachers, each employee was the primary source for promulgating the Catholic faith to the students in the teachers’ classes through their education. They argued the First Amendment principle that religious institutions have the right to “decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government, as well as those of faith and doctrine,” Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, mandated the application of the ministerial exception long recognized in the common law, and affirmed by the Supreme Court in the 2012 case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. The trial court granted the schools’ motions to dismiss the case. On appeal, the 9th Circuit reinstated both cases, saying that the women were not serving a religious leadership function, did not have adequate religious training, and did not bear the title “minister.” The schools appealed the 9th Circuit reversal to the Supreme Court.
In a 7-2 opinion, written by Justice Alito and notably joined by Justices Bryer and Kagan, the Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit’s holding. The Court held that both elementary school teachers performed “vital religious duties,” including educating students in the Catholic faith and guiding students in accordance with that faith, praying with students, worshipping with them, and teaching religion, among other “secular” subjects. The schools saw them as playing a vital role in the religious mission of the institution, and both their contracts and the employment handbooks reflected the importance of that vital role. The fact they didn’t carry the title “minister” was not dispositive for the court, because the core responsibilities of the teachers were the same as those found to exist in Perich, the teacher in question in Hosanna-Tabor. “A religious institution’s explanation of the role of its employees in the life of the religion in question is important.” Therefore, the Court attached the ministerial exception, and upheld the dismissal of Plaintiffs’ discrimination claims.
The Court reinforced its prior guidance in Hosanna-Tabor that it did not intend to create a a “rigid test,” in determining whether an employee constituted a ministerial employee for purposes of the exception. The 9th Circuit erred in sticking on the fact that neither plaintife bore the title “minister”. The Supreme Court observed that what matters is not what the person is called, but what they do. “Implicit in our decision in Hosanna-Tabor was 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.”
In holding the teachers to be ministers for purposes of the exception, the Court pointed to the fact that both Catholic schools at issue had at the core of their mission to educate and form students in the Catholic faith, and the schools’ employment agreements and handbooks indicated that their teachers were expected to help carry out the mission. The teachers were responsible for providing instruction in all subjects, including religion, and were trusted in educating students in the faith. They were responsible for serving as spiritual guides and role models for their students, prayed with them, and participated with them in worship. Finally, both schools saw their teachers as playing a vital part of carrying out the school’s spiritual mission. The Court noted that a religious school’s explanation of the role employees play in the life of the religion is an important inquiry.
With these factors in mind, the Court found 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.” Plaintiffs’ discrimination claims against the schools would be dismissed, because for a court to entangle itself in the employment dispute would invariably involve deliberating on matters of the school’s ability to effectively carry out its religious mission through its ministerial employees, which the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment does not allow.
These cases reaffirm and further clarify the strong legal protection under the First Amendment recognized by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor for Christian schools to conduct their employment affairs with teachers and administrators, under certain circumstances. Schools that are strong and true to an authentically Christian mission are more likely to enjoy First Amendment protection than are nominally Christian schools. I teach school law at the graduate level, and as I often tell my students that, as a school, if you’re going to be Christian, be very Christian. There is no area this rings truer than for schools interested in availing themselves of First Amendment protection under the ministerial exception to further its mission.
The greatest level of protection rests in actually living out what God has called most of us as Christian schools to be and do. Has God called your school to come alongside parents in leading their children into a lifetime relationship with Jesus Christ, and in equipping their children to be on mission as God’s people in the next generation? Are you dedicated to the faith formation of the young Church? Are God’s Word and His Truth truly the foundation of your school? Does His perspective on all of life permeate your entire curriculum, and is that perspective reflected in all the subjects taught in your academic program? And, are all of your teachers a critical part of carrying out all aspects of that mission, as articulated above? If the answers to these questions are yes, then write it down. Make sure that all your policies reflect how your school’s activities, including ALL curriculum and pedagogy–not only Bible class–reflect your school’s authentically Christian mission. Ensure that applications, job descriptions, employment handbooks and contracts spell out these expectations and requirements for your administrative and teaching staff, and articulate how those requirements are necessary to ensure and further the expression of your mission. These policies should all be adopted at the board level.
If your teachers are expected to infuse God’s Word and His Truth into every aspect of your school’s curriculum, are they trained to do so? How are you training them? Where does their understanding of “God’s Word” come from? Have you ensured that they have the theological and philosophical training necessary to effectively do what you are asking them to do? If not, then make sure they have the preparation they need. If so, then make sure you keep records as to what types of training they have had and when, as a part of their overall professional development documentation.
Wednesday’s ruling provides much for Christian schools to be thankful. And, yet, caution and humility are appropriate. The ministerial exception protection under the First Amendment, originally recognized by the Court in Hosanna-Tabor and clarified and reinforced for teachers of Christian schools in Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. James, is a very powerful protection that has the practical effect of disallowing many potential employment discrimination claims for those employees to whom the ministerial exception attaches. Justices Sotomayor and Ginsberg cautioned against this very real potential harm in their dissent.
There are two important ramifications. First, the exception will likely only be recognized in future litigation as appropriate for those employees who are actually responsible for inculcating the faith to the next generation, praying with and shepherding students. Only those mission-centric administrators and faculty who are employed by gospel-centric schools will likely qualify. Most support staff, and some teachers, will likely not. More importantly, however, is the tremendous responsibility that Christian school leaders have before the Lord to do justly and rightly by our employees to whom the exception attaches. In the epistle of James, the writer warns that “the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” With the freedom we have been given as leaders of our schools, how much more accountable will the Lord hold us to treat our people with justice and fairness?
None of the above constitutes legal advice. Readers should not rely on any of the above as legal counsel, and should seek their own legal counsel trained and competent in school law and in the preservation of religious liberties recognized under the law.
Jay Ferguson, J.D., PhD is the Head of School of Grace Community School in Tyler, Texas. Jay is in his 16th year as head of Grace. Since that time, Jay has worked to build a flourishing culture at Grace, a vibrant educational community that has been awarded Blue Ribbon Exemplary status by the U.S. Department of Education in 2015 and 2017. He is an adjunct professor at Covenant College, Gordon College, and Dallas Baptist University, and recently served on the adjunct faculties of the Van Lunen Center at Calvin College and at Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University. Jay is past President of the Board of the Texas Private School Association, former Chair of the Board of the Council on Educational Standards and Accountability, and is Chair-Elect of the executive board of the Association of Christian Schools International. Jay and his wife, Ashley, have three daughters: Emma, Annie, and Ellen. He has taught them to love Jesus and football, in that order, which he considers his gift to future sons-in-law, Lord willing.