Friday, December 27, 2019

SCOTUS will take another crack at ministerial exception to employment discrimination claims

Almost 8 years ago, a unanimous Supreme Court recognized that the First Amendment's Religion Clauses create a ministerial exception to the ADA in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. The Court held that a "called" teacher, who performed "important religious functions" could not file a lawsuit under the ADA.

Welp, get ready for round 2, because the Supreme Court just granted certiorari and will hear two consolidated cases:

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru - A Catholic school teacher filed an ADEA lawsuit, and the Ninth Circuit refused to apply the ministerial exception, in part because she did not hold a religious title. Hosanna-Tabor clearly held that a title is "relevant" but not determinative. The school argues that the plaintiff taught daily religious education classes through prayer, worship, and instruction, and "modeled" Catholic behavior. She had some other religious activities too, like directing an annual performance of The Passion.

St. James School v. Biel -  Another appeal from - you guessed it! - the Ninth Circuit. It's another case involving a Catholic school teacher. The Ninth Circuit applied something like a 4-factor test, looking at serving important religious functions, title, training, and tax benefits. The teacher only met the first factor, and so the Ninth Circuit held that the ministerial exception did not apply. Reading Hosana-Tabor, I think this is likely wrong. While all of those things are relevant, they are not equal or necessary elements.

I'm not a betting man, but I suspect the Ninth Circuit will not fare well here. The case has not yet been scheduled for argument, but will presumably be heard sometime in the next few months.

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