WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court appeared divided along ideological lines Monday in a case pitting the autonomy of religious employers against the job protections due their workers.
The dispute between two religious schools in California and the teachers they fired is the third major case the high court is considering this year in the area of religious freedom. The justices already are weighing whether to let state funds be used to help pay for religious school tuition and whether employers with religious or moral objections should be exempt from providing insurance coverage for contraceptives.
In the latest case, two religious school teachers were fired by their respective Catholic schools. One of them, 5th-grade teacher Kristen Biel, was let go from St. James Catholic School after developing breast cancer and seeking medical leave to undergo chemotherapy.
She sued successfully under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the school appealed. Then last year, she lost her battle with the disease, leaving her husband Darryl to carry on her challenge.
The other teacher, Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who is not a practicing Catholic, taught for 16 years at Our Lady of Guadalupe School but was let go based on her performance. She claimed age discrimination.
The schools relied on a Supreme Court precedent giving religious organizations “ministerial exceptions” from laws that apply to other employers. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled the teachers should have their day in court, prompting both schools to petition for Supreme Court review. The Trump administration took the schools’ side.
During oral argument Monday, held by phone and broadcast live because of the coronavirus pandemic, both conservative and liberal justices expressed concern about drawing lines among job descriptions. If a religion teacher can be fired at will, what about a general curriculum teacher, a nurse, a coach, a janitor or a bus driver?
“Doesn’t that create just exactly the sort of entanglement problems that we’ve tried to avoid elsewhere?” Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch asked Morgan Ratner, the U.S. assistant solicitor general representing the Trump administration.
Associate Justice Samuel Alito, a strong defender of religious liberty, argued that “the function of teaching a religion to new generations is central,” even if it’s just part of a general curriculum taught by grade-school teachers at religious schools.
But Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a four-time cancer patient, said it was “very disturbing” to think religious schools could fire workers for reasons that have “absolutely nothing to do with religion, like needing to take care of chemotherapy.”
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion in 2012 that allowed religious organizations to choose their leaders regardless of federal job discrimination laws. The latest question before the court is whether the fired teachers performed enough religious duties to be considerd “ministers” exempt from those laws.
Under Roberts, the court has ruled in favor of religious liberty in several cases recently. Last year, it ruled 7-2 that a mammoth Latin cross on government land in Bladensburg, Maryland, does not have to be moved or altered in the name of church-state separation. That followed other rulings allowing public prayer at government meetings and taxpayer funding for some church expenses.