Supreme Court justices on Monday heard arguments for and against extending the Civil Rights Act’s “ministerial exception” to Catholic schools when they fire teachers of religion.
“There is no reason for government to get in the business of teaching religion,” stated Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket who argued the case on behalf of the Catholic schools
On Monday, Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments over the phone in two cases consolidated as one, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel. The court announced in April that it would begin hearing arguments by live teleconference after it was forced to dely much of its planned business in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Both cases focused on the “ministerial exception,” which protects the right of churches and religious ministries to select and terminate ministers without government interference.
The case at hand would decide whether religion teachers at two Catholic schools could be considered religious ministers. The schools di not renew their contracts, saying the decision was performance-based; the teachers themselves claimed age-and-disability-based discrimination.
Becket, the group representing the schools, has said that religious schools have the right to classify religion teachers as ministers, and that courts cannot second-guess their determination.
In 2012, the Supreme Court had decided unanimously in the case Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC that a Lutheran church school firing a teacher, who taught the full curriculum including religion, was exempt from the Civil Rights Act because the teacher was considered a religious minister.
At Monday’s oral arguments, Supreme Court justices questioned just how broad the ministerial exception was, and whether it could be argued to extend past religion teachers at religious schools to include science teachers or coaches at religious schools who lead the students in prayer.
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