March 19, 2020
Fundamental civil rights and labor protections for countless Americans could be decimated if the Supreme Court sides with religious schools seeking carte blanche to hire and fire whomever they like for whatever reason without consequence. The Center for Inquiry urged the Court against any expansion of the so-called “ministerial exception” in an amicus brief filed in the consolidated cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel.
The ministerial exception narrowly grants religious organizations the ability to choose their own leaders without government interference. But in the cases of Morrisey-Berru and Biel, two religious schools fired teachers—not ministers, pastors, or priests—and claim their decisions are immune from challenge under the ministerial exception. Agnes Morrisey-Berru claimed she was fired from a Catholic school for her age, 64, and Kristen Biel claimed that her school terminated her upon disclosing a diagnosis of breast cancer, which resulted in a successful suit under the Americans with Disability Act. Ms. Biel has since died of her disease, and her widower is continuing the suit.
The Catholic schools in question assert that the grade-school teachers under their employ sufficiently qualify as “church leaders,” which they say inoculates them from any legal oversight. In its brief, co-signed by American Atheists and the American Humanist Association, the Center for Inquiry argues that not only is this claim to the ministerial exception ludicrously overbroad, but risks decimating basic protections for hundreds of thousands of Americans throughout the workforce, warning, “There is nothing in the theology or legal theory of the ministerial exception that would limit its scope to only religious schools.”
“The Supreme Court is in real danger of opening a floodgate that will wash away the rights of Americans who work for religious employers in any capacity,” said Nicholas Little, CFI’s Vice President and Legal Counsel and author of the brief. “Think of the hundreds of thousands of people employed by private religious schools. Think of the number of lecturers and professors, whose universities are religiously affiliated. And think of doctors, nurses, technicians, and administrators in Catholic-owned hospitals, which view the treatment of the sick as part of a religious mission. All of these employees would be at the mercy of legally unrestrained religious employers, with no recourse for when their rights are violated.”
CFI also warned that the damage may not be limited to nonprofit religious entities. “The Supreme Court’s infamous decision in the Hobby Lobby case granted sweeping privileges to religious for-profit corporations,” said Little. “If the Catholic schools get their way, what’s to stop a Hobby Lobby from considering its cashiers to be ‘ministers’?
“If this Court grants this kind of expansive religious immunity, the blast radius will be incredible, and in the rubble will be the kinds of necessary civil and labor protections that Americans from all walks of life rely on.”
“The Supreme Court, in these cases and others, is faced with a choice of whether the Establishment Clause, that fundamental American value that has defined and protected our society, actually means anything any more,” said Robyn Blumner, CFI’s President and CEO. “It’s time to recognize that religious groups should have to obey the same rules as the rest of us in society, otherwise it’s not religious freedom, it’s religious privilege for a select few.”
“Any definition of what constitutes a leader must be sufficiently narrow so that the exception remains just that,” the brief states. “It must be a true exception to the rule, not a sweeping ecclesiastical immunity that grants religious organizations, religious non-profits, and even religious owned for-profit corporations the right to ignore the rules that Congress has put in place to defend the fundamental constitutional value of equality.”