The Supreme Court and the freedom of religious organizations to employ whom they choose

March 12, 2020

The Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to hear another case regarding the freedom of religious organizations to employ people who share their sincerely held beliefs. The most recent case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, Agnes, comes from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the ruling of the Federal District Court. 

In the past, the Federal District Court sided with Our Lady of Guadalupe School in light of the precedent set by the Supreme Court’s Hosanna-Tabor decision back in 2012. With the Hosanna-Tabor decision, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that religious organizations possess a ministerial exception regarding human resource practices. Becket Law explains “ministerial exception” as granting “church schools like Our Lady of Guadalupe have the First Amendment right to choose who teaches the faith to the next generation, free from any government interference.”

In the case of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, Ms. Morrissey-Berru, a teacher at Our Lady of Guadalupe, sued the school when her contract was not renewed. As Becket Law reported, “Our Lady of Guadalupe School is committed to providing a faith-based education rooted in the Catholic tradition.” Ms. Morrissey-Berru, who was expected to teach religious material at the school, was deemed to be a poor fit for the religious school. Morrissey-Berru sued, believing that the school unfairly discriminated against her by not renewing her contract. At stake in this case is the right of religious organizations to manage their organizations, including the hiring and firing process, in a manner that is consistent with their beliefs.

The Supreme Court has already ruled on a similar situation in the case of Hosanna-Tabor, which means it is likely that the Ninth Circuit Court’s reversal of the Federal District Court ruling for Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru will be overturned by the Supreme Court in the Fall session. 

Commenting on the news of the justices taking up this case, ERLC president Russell Moore said that allowing a federal judiciary to have “the power to decide which theological beliefs deserve First Amendment protections” was perilous. Moore continued, “Faith-based organizations ought to be able to hire those whose views are consistent with the organization’s beliefs, especially when those employees are responsible for teaching religious doctrine. My hope is that the Supreme Court will step in and correct the Ninth Circuit's harmful ruling.”

The ERLC, alongside several other religious organizations, filed a brief with the Supreme Court on this case in September 2019. The friend-of-the-court brief argued, "Since the Founding, it has been well settled that when religious organizations make decisions about matters of faith, doctrine, or internal governance, the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment bar the government from second-guessing those choices."

For everyone watching this case unfold, keep in mind that this sort of government meddling in the personnel process of a religious organization is an action beyond its authority. In cases like these, the preservation of a religious organization’s distinctiveness is at stake. Christians should pray that the Supreme Court will overturn the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision and strengthen the existing precedent of religious freedom for religious organizations like Our Lady of Guadalupe School.

Casey B. Hough

Casey B. Hough (Ph.D., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as lead pastor at Copperfield Church in Houston, Texas, and assistant professor of biblical interpretation at a Luther Rice College and Seminary. Casey and his wife, Hannah, have three sons and two daughters. For more ministry resources from Casey, visit his … Read More