SCOTUS rules employment nondiscrimination does not apply to teachers at religious schools

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

This morning, July 8, the Supreme Court of the United States released two decisions regarding religious rights of employers and working privileges of employees.

In the cases Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Darryl Biel, SCOTUS ruled that federal employment discrimination laws do not apply to teachers at religious schools where their responsibilities include religious education. Justice Samuel Alito delivered the majority opinion.

In Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, it upheld a Trump administration regulation which allows employers to deny contraception coverage to their employees on religious or moral grounds. Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the majority opinion.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented in both cases.

Employment Discrimination: Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Darryl Biel

The decision was based on a religious exception to employment discrimination laws, which was established in the 2012 case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The “ministerial exception,” as it is called, is intended to keep courts out of the process of employing religious leaders who have prominent positions in religious organizations. Essentially, it attempts to maintain the separation of church and state in the realm of employment discrimination law.

It encompasses employees who meet certain factors, including those who have a significant “role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.” Many teachers in religious schools fall under this category, as has been clarified in today’s ruling, because part of their jobs involve religious education.

Sotomayor wrote in the dissent that the categorization based on factors was too broad, suggesting that it should instead be limited to “faith leaders,” including priests and imams, among others.

“When it applies, the exception is extraordinarily potent: It gives an employer free rein to discriminate because of race, sex, pregnancy, age, disability,or other traits protected by law when selecting or firing their ‘ministers,’ even when the discrimination is wholly unrelated to the employer’s religious beliefs or practices,” she wrote.

The employees in question were suing for age discrimination and for nonrenewal of a contract following a breast cancer diagnosis. In the 2012 case, the employee had been fired for pursuing a discrimination claim based on having narcolepsy, a disability.

Contraception Coverage: Little Sisters v. Pennsylvania

The decision upheld a “religious exemption” and a “moral exemption” that allow employers to deny some or all forms of contraceptive care. After the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, federal agencies outlined rules that require coverage of contraceptive care under the act.

Previously, an Obama administration rule allowed religious non-profit organizations to transfer financial and administrative responsibility of the contraceptive coverage to their insurer. Religious groups argued that that rule still forced them to comply with a rule that contradicted their religious beliefs, however indirect it was.

Ginsburg delivered the dissent. “Destructive of the Women’s Health Amendment [of the Affordable Care Act], this Court leaves women workers to fend for themselves, to seek contraceptive coverage from sources other than their employer’s insurer, and, absent another available source of funding, to pay for contraceptive services out of their own pockets,” Ginsburg wrote. Kaiser Health News wrote of the significance of the moral exemption: “The addition of moral objection is a dramatic expansion, said Michael Fisher, who argued the case on behalf of Pennsylvania during the court’s oral arguments in May. Fisher said the provision was so broad that employers could deny contraceptive coverage because they morally object to women being in the workplace.”