Under the First Amendment’s religion clauses, can civil courts adjudicate an employee’s employment-discrimination claim against her religious employer where the employee’s job entailed important religious functions?
This case asks the Supreme Court to determine whether two teachers at two Catholic schools are “ministers” and thus fall within the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception.” This exception immunizes religious employers from generally applicable employment-discrimination laws, so long as the employees at issue are considered “ministers.” Petitioners, Our Lady of Guadalupe School and St. James Catholic School (“the Schools”), contend that that under Hosanna-Tabor, an employee’s “job function” is the primary factor that courts should consider when determining whether an employee of a religious organization qualifies as a “minister.” The Schools contend that both teachers at issue here engaged in important religious functions by teaching religion to students. Respondents and teachers, Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Biel (“Morrissey-Berru”), counter that Hosanna-Tabor established a four-factor test, looking not only to the employee’s religious functions, but also to her title, training, and actions. According to Morrissey-Berru, neither teacher held a ministerial title, received religious training, nor held themselves out to be ministers. Even looking to their religious functions, she contends that teaching religion among other secular subjects is insufficient to make a teacher a minister. The outcome of this case will have implications for religious organizations’ employment practices and the civil-rights protections of their employees.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the First Amendment’s religion clauses prevent civil courts from adjudicating employment-discrimination claims brought by an employee against her religious employer, when the employee carried out important religious functions.
This case consolidates two cases, the first brought by Kristen Biel and the second brought by Agnes Deirdre Morrissey-Berru. Orders and Proceedings, 19-267.
In Biel v. St. James Sch., Kristen Biel (“Biel”) was initially employed by St. James Catholic School (“St. James”) as a first-grade substitute teacher. Biel v. St. James Sch. at 605. Later, in June 2013, St. James hired Biel as a full-time, fifth-grade teacher for one year. Id. As a condition of her new full-time employment, Biel signed an employment contract with St. James that affirmed St. James’s religious mission, and that further obligated Biel to adhere to that religious mission in her professional capacity as a full-time teacher—in conformity with Roman Catholic teachings. Id. Specifically, Biel delivered four, thirty-minute class sessions per week on religious topics. Id. Additionally, Biel instructed her students on traditional catechisms, and Biel herself attended a four-hour conference in Los Angeles on Catholic pedagogy. Id. at 606. Biel was diagnosed with cancer less than a year after gaining full-time employment with St. James. Id. After Biel informed a colleague of her diagnosis St. James subsequently informed Biel that it would not be renewing Biel’s teaching contract based on her allegedly loose “classroom management.” Id.
Biel sued St. James in the United States District Court for the Central District of California (the “District Court”), arguing that in terminating her, St. James violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Id. at 606. St. James moved for summary judgment on Biel’s claim, arguing that because Biel’s ADA claim falls under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and she was considered a “religious minister,” her claim is barred by the ministerial exception. Id. The ministerial exception bars employees from bringing employment-discrimination claims against a religious employer where the employee serves religious functions. Id.
The District Court granted St. James’s summary-judgment motion. Id. Biel then appealed her case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (the “Ninth Circuit”). Id. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded the case under the Hosanna-Tabor analysis. Id. at 608. Under Hosanna-Tabor, the Ninth Circuit found that Biel was not a “minister” based on her duties in the classroom; therefore, the ministerial exception did not apply. Id. at 7. After the Ninth Circuit denied an en banc hearing, St. James petitioned the United States Supreme Court, asking for a writ of certiorari. Id.
In the second consolidated case, Morrissey-Berru v. Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch., respondent Agnes Deirdre Morrissey-Berru (“Morrissey”) filed an employment-discrimination claim against her employer, Our Lady of Guadalupe School (“Our Lady”). Brief for Respondents, Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Darryl Biel at 14. In 1998, the California-based Catholic parish school first hired Morrissey as a substitute teacher. Id. at 11. The following year, Our Lady hired Morrissey as a full-time, sixth-grade teacher. Id. at 11–12. Morrissey taught sixth grade for 10 years and then taught fifth grade for six years. Id. at 12. During this time, Morrissey received her California teaching credential from Chapman University. Id.
Every year, Morrissey had to sign a “Faculty Employment Agreement” which referred to her only as a “teacher” and not a “minister.” Id. As part of this agreement, the teachers must agree to comport with Catholic doctrine by aligning their classes with “the values of Christian charity, temperance, and tolerance,” and by “model[ing] and promot[ing] behavior in conformity to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in matters of faith and morals.” Brief for Petitioners, Our Lady of Guadalupe School and St. James School at 10. To follow this commitment, Morrissey taught religious classes every day, introduced students to Catholicism, and provided a framework for their religious doctrine. Id. at 11. Her teaching methods involved the use of prayer, worship, and the reading of scripture. Id. at 12. Morrissey, however, did not only teach religion; she also taught reading, writing, math, grammar, vocabulary, science, and social studies. Brief for Respondents at 13.
In 2012, Our Lady’s principal, April Beuder, directed Morrissey to implement a new reading program “to address concerns about academic rigor” at the school. Brief for Petitioners at 15. In 2014, Principal Beuder expressed disappointment at how Morrissey implemented the program, and so, she removed Morrissey to a part-time position that involved teaching fifth-grade religion and fifth-through-seventh-grade social studies for the following year. Id. at 15; Brief for Respondents at 13. After that year, Principal Beuder was still unsatisfied with Morrissey’s performance in the part-time role, and she did not renew Morrissey’s employment contract for the following year. Brief for Petitioners at 15; Brief for Respondents at 14. At the time, Morrissey was in her sixties. Brief for Respondents at 13.
On June 2, 2015, Morrissey then filed an employment-discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), alleging that Our Lady violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”). Brief for Petitioners at 15; Brief for Respondents at 14. The EEOC issued Morrissey a right-to-sue letter on September 19, 2016, and on December 19, 2016, she filed suit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California (the “District Court”). Id.
Our Lady responded by filing a summary-judgment motion. Brief for Petitioners at 15–16. The District Court granted the motion, finding that the First Amendment’s ministerial exception barred Morrissey’s claim. Id. The court explained that Morrissey’s had a ministerial role because she “expressly admitted that her job duties involved conveying the Church’s message” and she “integrat[ed] Catholic values and teachings into all of her lessons.” Id.
In October 2017, Morrissey appealed the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (the “Ninth Circuit”). Id. at 16. The Ninth Circuit, following its decision in Biel, reversed and remanded the case back to the District Court. Brief for Respondents at 14. The Ninth Circuit explained that “considering the totality of the circumstances,” the District Court erred in determining that Morrissey was a minister. Id. The Ninth Circuit determined Morrissey was not a minister because she did not hold an ecclesiastical title, she did not have any significant “religious credential, training, or ministerial background,” and she “did not hold herself out to the public as a religious leader or minister.” Id. at 14–15.
The Ninth Circuit denied an en banc hearing, and Our Lady petitioned the United States Supreme Court for certiorari. Id. On December 18, 2019, the Court granted certiorari. Orders and Proceedings, 19-267.
THE FUNCTIONAL APPROACH VS. THE FOUR-FACTOR TEST
Petitioners, the Schools, contend that the Court should adopt the functional approach to determine when an employee is a minister. Brief for Petitioners, Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. James at 36. The Schools refer to a prior Supreme Court decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, to argue that the ministerial exception applies when an employee’s job involves important religious functions. Id. The Schools rely on Justices Alito and Kagan’s concurrence which stated that “courts should focus on the function performed by persons who work for religious bodies.” Id. at 38. In focusing on the religious employee’s functions, the Schools contend, that a religious organization should be free to appoint employees who carry out its essential functions. Id. The Schools further explain that under Hosanna-Tabor and the First Amendment, it is imperative that religious organizations retain “control over the selection of those who will personify [their] beliefs” and to deprive these organization of this control would “interfere with internal church governance.” Id. at 36–38.
The Schools then define what qualifies as an important religious function under the ministerial exception, arguing that teaching the faith, conveying the Church’s message, or carrying out its mission satisfies the requirement. Id. at 41. Looking to the minister-teacher in Hosanna-Tabor, the Schools assert that, at a minimum, important religious functions include teaching religion, leading students in prayer or devotional exercises, accompanying students to worship services, and occasionally leading those services. Id. at 42. Moreover, they argue that important religious functions can involve leading a religious organization; conducting worship services, ceremonies, or rituals; or serving as the faith’s messenger. Id. at 42. The Schools add that this list is not exhaustive; any function that is “important for the autonomy of the religious group” could be included. Id. at 43. The Schools maintain, however, that for an employee to be considered a minister, she need not have the formal title of “minister” nor have received ministerial training. Id. at 37–38. Simply carrying out an important religious function qualifies an employee as a minister, according to the Schools. Id. at 41–43.
Contrary to the Schools’ interpretation, Respondent Morrissey-Berru contends that the Court should use a four-part test to identify when an employee is a minister. Brief for Respondents, Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Darryl Biel at 20. The four factors, she explains, are whether the employee has (1) the title of minister; (2) received ministerial substance and training; (3) “held herself out as a minister;” and (4) carried out “important religious functions.” Id. Morrissey-Berru then explains these factors, asserting that employees with titles such as “pastor,” “rabbi,” or “nun” are expressly “ministers.” Id. at 21. Furthermore, she adds that for an employee to be considered a minister, at a minimum, the religious group must require that employee to be an adherent of their faith. Id. Finally, she notes that if the position involves extensive religious training, such as the teaching position did in Hosanna-Tabor, then it is likely that the employee holding the position qualifies as a minister. Id. at 22.
Morrissey-Berru contends that it is flawed to merely focus on the “important religious functions” factor—as the Schools argue—based on the ministerial exception’s precedent, history, and purpose. Id. at 24. First, looking to the precedent, Morrissey-Berru notes that the courts have rejected this single-factor approach. Id. at 24–26. She points to a case, Ohio Civil Rights Commission v. Dayton Christian Schools, Inc., where a Christian elementary school fired a pregnant teacher, Cheryl Perich, stating that “mothers should stay home with their preschool aged children.” Id. at 24–25. Although the ministerial exception was not explicitly involved, Morrissey-Berru contends that the Court allowed the teacher’s EEOC complaint to proceed, despite the school’s objection that she carried out “important religious functions.” Id. Therefore, Morrissey-Berru argues, this one factor is insufficient to qualify a religious employee as a minister. Id. Furthermore, she points to a “consensus” among the courts of appeals that teachers who have some religious duties, but primarily teach secular subjects, are not ministers. Id. at 27. Morrissey-Berru also looks to the ministerial exception’s history, as mapped out in Hosanna-Tabor, finding that it generally involved “a religious organization’s freedom to select its titled clergy or other expressly designated leaders,” not a lay teacher in a religious school. Id. at 28. She, therefore, contends that the ministerial exception’s precedent, history, and purpose cannot mean including teachers such as herself and Biel as they “exercise[d] no judgment regarding religious dogma,” carrying out mainly secular duties, and were not even required to be members of the faith. Id.
APPLICATION OF THE MINISTERIAL EXCEPTION
The Schools argue that, under the functional approach, both Morrissey-Berru and Biel are ministers. Brief for Petitioners at 45. The Schools explain that both teachers fall within the exception because they carried out important religious functions—they taught the faith, and led students in prayer, mass, and other devotional acts. Id. First, the schools assert that both Morrissey-Berru and Biel should be considered ministers because both the teachers here spent more time teaching religion than the teacher-minister, Cheryl Perich, in Hosanna-Tabor. Id. For example, the Schools point out that Morrissey-Berru taught religion five days a week as opposed to Perich’s four days; and Biel taught religion for a total of 200 minutes per week while Perich taught for only 180 minutes per week. Id. at 46. The Schools maintain that, therefore, these teachers taught “devotional Catholic doctrinal instruction” to the students more than any other Catholic Church official. Id. at 47. Furthermore, the Schools argue that the teachers carried out important religious functions as they not only taught religion, but they “engaged in other forms of religious expression, worship, and ritual,” such as accompanying their students to Mass. Id. Moreover, the Schools contend that even though the teachers taught secular subjects, they “infused Catholic faith and values” into all their lessons. Id. The Schools therefore contend that both teachers are ministers because they served an important religious function by teaching the Catholic faith to their students, leading them in worship, and encouraging religious expression. Id. at 45–48.
The Schools assert that, although not necessary, both teachers also fall within the ministerial exception because their titles imply that they are ministers. Id. at 50. The Schools explain that the teachers had formal titles—teacher and catechist—that had substance behind them. Id. at 45. For example, Morrissey-Berru held the formal title of both teacher and certified Catechist, asserts the Schools, and she received training under both titles which she used to instruct her students. Id. at 50–51. The Schools also maintain that hiring these teachers was a “canonical act” and “function of the church” because the parish priest or local bishop had to approve each teacher before her appointment. Id. Furthermore, each teacher was required to “propagate and manifest the Catholic faith in all aspects” of their teaching role, adding substance to their title, the Schools argue. Id. Therefore, the Schools maintain that both Morrissey-Berru and Biel were ministers because they carried out the important religious function of teaching the Catholic faith and because both carried formal titles with substance behind them indicating they were ministers of the faith. Id. at 45–48; 50–51.
Morrissey-Berru counters that, using either the four-part test or the Schools’ functional test, herself and Biel are not ministers because none of the four factors are met and neither teacher carried out important religious functions. Brief for Respondents at 40. First, Morrissey-Berru points to their respective titles, where each one’s respective contract referred to them as “teacher” not “minister.” Id. Second, Morrissey-Berru maintains that herself and Biel received insufficient training to make them ministers. Id. at 41. For example, Morrissey-Berru counters the Schools’ assertion that she was a “certified Catechist,” arguing the record does not show that she completed the Catechist program and that, either way, the program involved learning the Church’s history and was not spiritual training. Id. Morrissey-Berru then contrasts her and Biel’s education with that of Perich’s experience: Perich spent six years completing requirements to become a commissioned minister, while neither Biel nor Morrissey-Berru had any religious training prior to their hiring. Id. at 41–42. Next, Morrissey-Berru contends that neither she nor Biel held themselves out to be ministers, unlike Perich’s actions, who referred to herself as a minister with the school and claimed a special housing tax allowance given only to employees “in the exercise of the ministry.” Id. at 43. Contrary to Perich’s actions, neither teacher here referred to themselves as a minister nor did they claim any benefits available only to spiritual leaders, claims Morrissey-Berru. Id. Therefore, Morrissey-Berru contends that the first three Hosanna-Tabor factors have not been met.
Morrissey-Berru also counters the Schools’ argument, stating that neither herself nor Biel engaged in religious functions important enough to qualify them as ministers. Id. at 45. She explains that they each primarily taught secular subjects and adhered to curriculum guidelines from the State of California. Id. Morrissey-Berru maintains that Biel never led nor initiated devotional activities during class; instead, the students themselves led the prayers. Id. Morrissey-Berru also contends that she never led mass, delivered a sermon, nor selected hymns for school mass, although she did occasionally pray in class. Id. at 46. She analogizes to the teachers in Dayton, where they prayed in each class, led devotionals, and were required to be “religious role models,” and yet were not found to be ministers. Id. at 47. Similarly, she adds that teaching religion and occasionally praying does not automatically make a teacher a minister. Id. Finally, neither school required their teachers to be Catholic; therefore, Morrissey-Berru argues, that the teaching position and its functions cannot be of such importance to the Church that they qualify as ministers. Id. at 44, 47.
EMPLOYERS’ RELIGIOUS FREEDOMS VS. EMPLOYEES’ CIVIL-RIGHTS PROTECTIONS
The Christian Legal Society (“CLS”), in support of the Schools, argues that broadly interpreting the ministerial exception is imperative to ensure both religious equality and freedom from government interference. Brief of Amici Curiae Christian Legal Society (“CLS”) et al., in Support of Petitioners at 9. First, CLS maintains that a narrow definition favors some religions as the term “minister” has “strong Protestant associations.” Id. The National Catholic Educational Association (“NCEA”) agrees, explaining that some faiths, such as Islam or Hinduism, do not use the term “minister,” while others, such as Sunni Islam or Sikh, reject classes of ordained clergy altogether. Brief of Amicus Curiae National Catholic Educational Association (“NCEA”), in Support of Petitioners at 23. Therefore, CLS contends that because the United States is home to “virtually every religion in the world,” it is important to interpret the exception broadly to encompass all religions. Brief of CLS at 9. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (the “Foundation”) also argues that a broad interpretation ensures that religious groups retain their constitutional right to self-governance. Brief of Amicus Curiae the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (the “Foundation”), in Support of Petitioners at 14. The Foundation explains that a religious organization’s right to hire staff is “at the heart of [their] freedom” because such employees shape the faith and carry out its mission. See id. at 15. CLS adds that denying religious organizations the ability to hire and terminate their own staff could create a chilling effect. Brief of CLS at 11–12. CLS explains that uncertainty about who the organization may hire, and fear of liability, would cause such groups to “conform [their] beliefs and practices regarding ‘ministers’ to the prevailing secular understanding.” Id.
In support of Morrissey-Berru, the National Women’s Law Center (“NWLC”) counters the Schools’ concerns for religious liberty by arguing that primarily basing the ministerial exception on the “important religious functions” factor erodes civil-rights protections for religious organizations’ employees. Brief of Amici Curiae National Women’s Law Center (“NWLC”) et al., in Support of Respondents at 9. NWLC explains that adopting this “functions-only test” will encourage sex, race, disability, and age discrimination within religious workplaces. Id. at 9, 14–19. Moreover, NWLC contends that employees would be unable to assert retaliation claims which is important since, each year, the EEOC receives tens of thousands of these complaints—more than any other kind of employment-discrimination claim. Id. at 21. The State of Virginia agrees, adding that overturning the Ninth Circuit’s opinion would likely deny over 100,000 lay teachers employed by Catholic elementary and secondary schools the federal and state-law employment protections to which they would otherwise be entitled. Brief of Amici Curiae the State of Virginia et al., in Support of Respondent at 33. Specifically, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (“FFRF”) asserts that this “functions-only test” would jeopardize the civil rights of millions of healthcare workers. Brief of Amici Curiae Freedom from Religion Foundation (“FFRF”) et al., in Support of Respondents at 15. FFRF explains that religious hospitals employ a significant number of workers—upwards of 750,000 people—and applying the ministerial exception broadly would deprive these individuals of their civil-rights protections, despite their highly secular job. Id. at 18–20.
ADMINISTRATION OF THE EXCEPTION
The Independent Women’s Law Center (“IWLC”), in support of the Schools, argues that adopting the Ninth Circuit’s four-factor test will bog down the civil courts in matters involving religious doctrine and practice. Brief of Amicus Curiae Independent Women’s Law Center, in Support of Petitioners at 12. The IWLC maintains that courts will become entangled in questions involving the degree of religious training or time spent on a “religious” activity. Id. at 13. Moreover, the IWLC notes that this test would allow a secular judge to definitively determine when a religious employee’s job is sufficiently important to qualify as a minister. Id. at 12. The Foundation agrees, explaining that courts would have to delve into religious organizations and determine which employees and what roles are fundamental to the organization’s mission. Brief of the Foundation at 15–16. The Foundation asserts that the First Amendment’s religion clauses bar this inquiry into religious matters. Id. Therefore, the Foundation contends that the Court should adopt the “important religious functions” test to avoid difficult line-drawing and improper inquiries. Id.
Morrissey-Berru counters by arguing that the School’s proposed test for the ministerial exception would be very difficult to properly administer in practice. Brief for Respondents at 30. Morrissey-Berru explains that there is no bright-line rule that can distinguish between religious and secular duties. Id. For example, she points to secretariat schools that provide integrated secular education with religious mission, making it difficult to untwine the two. Id. Morrissey-Berru asserts that under the Ninth Circuit’s four-factor test, using formal designations—such as “minister,” “rabbi,” or “nun”—can help to eliminate the difficult line-drawing in which courts would otherwise engage. Id. at 20–21. The NWLC agrees, explaining that the four-factor test provides the courts with an objective set of criteria to use when determining whether an employee is a minister. Brief of NWLC at 30. NWLC further asserts that some religious organizations could take advantage of the Schools’ proposed test by assigning ministerial duties to lay employees merely to ensure that they fall within the exception. Id. at 30–31. Therefore, the NWLC contends that the Court should adopt the Ninth Circuit’s more workable and consistent four-factor test to determine when an employee falls within the ministerial exception. Id.
- Ian Millhiser: The Supreme Court Will Hear 2 Major Cases About When Religious Schools Can Ignore Civil Rights Laws, Vox (Dec. 19, 2019).
- Pete Williams: Supreme Court to Decide Scope of Church Immunity to Employment Lawsuits, NBC News (Dec. 18, 2019).
- Eric W. May and Daniel C. Whang: Ninth Circuit Narrowly Construes the First Amendment’s Ministerial Exception for Religious Institution Employers, Employment Law Lookout (July 23, 2019).