Supreme Court to weigh church immunity to fired workers’ lawsuits

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Supreme Court

In its second religious freedom case this term, the Supreme Court agreed last week to determine how much protection religious organizations have from lawsuits filed by terminated employees, according to NBC News.

The court earlier agreed to consider a Montana law that barred religious schools from getting state scholarship aid funded by taxpayers.

Justices ruled in 2012 that churches, associated schools and other religious organizations cannot be sued by staff with a “ministerial” function. Such suits would violate separation of church and state, the court said.

On Dec. 18 justices agreed to hear appeals from two Catholic schools in California that were sued when they did not renew teacher contracts. Agnes Morrissey-Berru sued Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach for age discrimination when her contract was cancelled. Kristen Biel sued St. James School in Torrance when her contract wasn’t renewed, saying the school was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The churches in both cases maintained that they were immune. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco refused to throw out the suits, however, ruling that while the teachers taught religious subjects their duties were not “ministerial.” Morrissey-Berru is not a practicing Catholic and was not required to attend religious training for most of her time at Our Lady of Guadalupe.

She never led any religious services, never selected hymns at mass and never delivered a sermon. In no way, she argued, did she act as any kind of minister. Kristen Biel is Catholic, but her faith was not a prerequisite for teaching at the school. She, too, said she never had ministerial functions.

Lower courts have generally maintained that workers with religious functions cannot sue for job discrimination, whether they are considered ministers or not. If the appeals court rulings in these two cases are allowed to stand, lawyers for schools told the Supreme Court, it would open religious institutions to lawsuits that the high court’s 2012 decision did not intend to permit.

The justices will hear courtroom argument in the spring and issue a decision by late June.

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