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Citing ERLC brief, SCOTUS protects religious liberty

Top Quotes from Our Lady of Guadalupe

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July 9, 2020

Earlier today, the Supreme Court decided the case of Our Lady Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru.  This 7-2 ruling protects the right of religious organizations to hire individuals who share their religious beliefs. 

This case expanded the scope of the ministerial exception and applied it to religious schools.  The ministerial exception emerged eight years ago in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, where the court held that the First Amendment prevents the federal government from intervening in the employment practices of churches. 

Today’s decision, according to Russell Moore, “Is crucial in reaffirming the religious liberty advocated by early American Baptists such as Isaac Backus and John Leland in coalition with founding leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. If a religious organization cannot recruit leaders who agree with the beliefs and practices of those organizations, then there can be no true religious freedom.” 

The ERLC filed an amicus brief (a friend-of-the-court brief) with other religious organizations arguing that the ministerial exception should apply to school teachers. Specifically, we argued that the ministerial exception is vital to ensure religious organizations are properly shielded from unconstitutional government interference in matters of faith. Additionally, we argued that the religious duties performed by the school teachers, though not ministerial in title, were sufficient to be included in the ministerial exception.

The Court cited ERLC’s brief to support the idea that courts must respect the fact that religious groups define a “minister” in a wide range of ways—the ministerial exception must be broad enough to reflect that fact.

Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Justice Thomas wrote a concurring opinion joined by Justice Gorsuch. Justice Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Ginsberg.

Below are key quotes from both the majority opinion and the dissents highlighting how the court reached their decision. The quotes are organized by topics the justices covered in their writings. Page numbers from the court’s decision are given for each quote, but legal citations are omitted for clarity of reading.

For more information on this case and how it will impact the hiring decisions of religious organizations, check out our explainer. 

Majority Opinion: Justice Alito joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh

Defining the ministerial exception:

“Simply giving an employee the title of ‘minister’ is not enough to justify the exception. And by the same token, since many religious traditions do not use the title ‘minister,’ it cannot be a necessary requirement.” (17)

“[I]n Hosanna-Tabor, we unanimously recognized that the Religion Clauses foreclose certain employment discrimination claims brought against religious organizations.” (11-12)

“As elementary school teachers responsible for providing instruction in all subjects, including religion, they were the members of the school staff who were entrusted most directly with the responsibility of educating their students in the faith.” (21)

“What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does. And 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.” (18)

Religious organizations should be free from government interference:

“Among other things, the Religion Clauses protect the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide matters ‘of faith and doctrine’ without government intrusion.” (10)

“State interference in that sphere would obviously violate the free exercise of religion, and any attempt by government to dictate or even to influence such matters would constitute one of the central attributes of an establishment of religion. The First Amendment outlaws such intrusion.” (10)

“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.” (26-27)

Concurring Opinion: Justice Thomas joined by Justice Gorsuch

Extending the ministerial exception:

“Morrissey-Berru’s and Biel’s positions fall within the ‘ministerial exception,’ because, as Catholic school teachers, they are charged with ‘carry[ing] out [the religious] mission’ of the parish schools.” (1)

“[B]oth Morrissey-Berru’s and Biel’s teaching contracts required that their ‘duties and responsibilities . . . be performed [with an] overriding commitment’ to ‘develop[ing] . . . a Catholic School Faith Community’ in accordance with “the doctrines, laws and norms of the Catholic Church.” (4)

“The foregoing is more than enough to sustain the sincerity of petitioners’ claims that Morrissey-Berru and Biel held ministerial roles in the parish schools. Their claims thus

warrant this Court’s deference and serve as a sufficient basis for applying the ministerial exception.” (5)

The government has no place second-guessing the hiring decisions of religious organizations: 

“I join the Court’s opinion in full. I write separately, however, to reiterate my view that the Religion Clauses require civil courts to defer to religious organizations’ good-faith claims that a certain employee’s position is ‘ministerial.’”  (2)

“What qualifies as ‘ministerial’ is an inherently theological question, and thus one that cannot be resolved by civil courts through legal analysis.” (2)

“The Court properly declines to consider whether an employee shares the religious organization’s beliefs when determining whether that employee’s position falls within the ‘ministerial exception,’ explaining that to ‘determin[e] whether a person is a “co-religionist” . . . would risk judicial entanglement in religious issues.’” (3)

Dissenting Opinion: Justice Sotomayor joined by Justice Ginsburg

Although both Justices Sotomayor and Ginsberg joined with the Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor, which was decided 9-0 by the Court in 2011, they dissented in this case. They wrote a dissenting opinion that arguably would have narrowed the scope of Hosanna-Tabor.

Disputing the applicability of the ministerial exception: 

“Until today, no court had held that the ministerial exception applies with disputed facts like these and lay teachers like respondents, let alone at the summary judgment stage.” (8)

“Congress, however, has crafted exceptions to protect religious autonomy. Some antidiscrimination laws, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, permit a religious institution to consider religion when making employment decisions.” (2)

“The ‘ministerial exception,’ by contrast, is a judge-made doctrine. This Court first recognized it eight years ago in Hosanna-Tabor, concluding that the First Amendment categorically bars certain antidiscrimination suits by religious leaders against their religious employers.” (3)

Disagreeing with the majority about the meaning of Hosanna-Tabor:

“Only by rewriting Hosanna-Tabor does the Court reach a different result. The Court starts with an unremarkable view: that Hosanna-Tabor’s ‘recognition of the significance of “the first three ‘factors’ in that case” did not mean that they must be met—or even that they are necessarily important—in all other cases.’” (8)

“Today’s decision thus invites the ‘potential for abuse’ against which circuit courts have long warned. Nevermind that the Court renders almost all of the Court’s opinion in Hosanna-Tabor irrelevant. It risks allowing employers to decide for themselves whether discrimination is actionable. Indeed, today’s decision reframes the ministerial exception as broadly as it can, without regard to the statutory exceptions tailored to protect religious practice.” (10)

“Faithfully applying Hosanna-Tabor’s approach and common sense confirms that the teachers here are not Catholic ‘ministers’ as a matter of law.” (10)

“This analysis is context-specific. It necessarily turns on, among other things, the structure of the religious organization at issue. Put another way (and as the Court repeats throughout today’s opinion), Hosanna-Tabor declined to adopt a ‘rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.’” (5)

“In foreclosing the teachers’ claims, the Court skews the facts, ignores the applicable standard of review, and collapses Hosanna-Tabor’s careful analysis into a single consideration: whether a church thinks its employees play an important religious role. Because that simplistic approach has no basis in law and strips thousands of schoolteachers of their legal protections, I respectfully dissent.” (1-2)

ERLC interns Julia Stamper, Sloan Collier, Seth Billingsley, and Mary Beth Teague contributed to this article.