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U.S. Supreme Court Considers Ministerial Exception

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May 14, 2020

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments from two cases that will examine the parameters of the “ministerial exception,” a critical concept that prevents government interference in religious matters.

The two cases in question - Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel, which have been combined into one – were heard via teleconference by the nine members of the Court on Monday.

The cases stem from the dismissal of two teachers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who allege they were terminated due to discriminatory factors. The schools say their contracts were terminated based on performance-related issues.

Lawyers representing the schools contend that the “ministerial exception” applies to all religious employees and the cases should be dismissed. Counsel for the teachers argued that extending the exception so broadly would encroach on employee protections in other professions, such as nurses.

The Justices seem initially divided on a decision, with Justice Neil Gorsuch stressing that the government, which filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting the schools, is asking the court to decide who is playing an important role in religious institutions and who has a minimal one. 

A unanimous and landmark 2012 Supreme Court ruling (Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church v. EEOC) cited the exception to prohibit a lawsuit filed by a teacher at a Lutheran school who was also an ordained minister. However, the ruling failed to provide a formula by which to determine future cases.  The current cases may test that limit or the Justices may once again refrain from being too specific.

A decision on the case is expected this summer.  Read more about the cases at Becket Law and this Catholic News Agency article.