In May 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled that two elementary school teachers at religious schools could not pursue their claims of age and disability discrimination. The court found that employees such as teachers who hold important positions cannot sue their employers because of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clauses.
In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru, the Supreme Court held, in a 7-2 decision, that although the teachers were not given the title of minister, they fit within the so-called ministerial exception to anti-discrimination laws.
The Court held that the school administrators in the consolidated case before the Court both thought the two plaintiffs had a sufficient understanding of Catholicism to teach their students, and judges should not second-guess the schools’ own credentialing requirements. The Court noted that both teachers held themselves out to their students as authorities on religion and, by extension, to the students’ families. This was true even though one of the teachers was not, in fact, a practicing Catholic.
Reaffirming a Prior Decision
The Court’s decision reaffirmed and expanded its decision in a prior case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC. In that case, decided in 2012, the Supreme Court outlined the four factors that were to be considered when determining whether a teacher was employed at a religious school as a minister:
- The teacher’s formal title;
- The substance reflected in that title;
- The teacher’s own use of that title; and
- The important religious functions the teacher performed for the religious institution.
Limits to the Ruling
The Supreme Court’s decision should not be interpreted to mean that all teachers at religious schools are covered by the ministerial exception. Rather, the Court focused on what the employees did, and less on their title.