Religious discrimination case gets Supreme Court hearing

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard oral arguments in a significant case pertaining to the civil rights of individuals employed with religious entities, a case in which the Freedom From Religion Foundation has submitted an amicus brief.

The consolidated cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel are dealing with the “ministerial exception” to civil rights laws that allow religious organizations to fire their “ministerial” employees for any reason — even because of race, sex, religion, age, national origin, etc. In an amicus brief filed before the court in March, FFRF had asked the high court to reject such overbroad firing practices.

Justice Elena Kagan, a key vote in this case, grilled the schools’ counsel during the oral arguments on whether a list of different types of employees would fall under the ministerial exception if the court adopted the religious function test preferred by his clients. The counsel admitted that a “nurse at a Catholic hospital who prays with sick patients and is told otherwise to tend to their religious needs” would be covered under the ministerial exception, which confirms a key part of FFRF’s argument that Catholic hospital employees would lose their civil rights under the sweeping test that the defendants desire.

Justice Stephen Breyer voiced concerns that such a test may go too far. And Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out that the schools were asking the court “for an exception to the Family and Medical Leave Act, to wage and hourly laws, to all sorts of laws, including breach of contract.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also hit the nail on the head, calling “the breadth of the exemption ... staggering.”

These are the basic details of the case. Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who is not a practicing Catholic, is charging her employer, the Our Lady of Guadalupe School, based in Hermosa Beach, Calif., with age discrimination for not renewing her contract after 16 years as a full-time teacher. Kristin Biel, who was a full-time teacher at St. James School in Torrance, Calif., filed charges for disability discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after her dismissal while being treated for breast cancer. Biel has since died, and the case is continuing under the aegis of her widower, Darryl Biel. Both argue they did not serve as ministers, but as teachers. Both teachers had won their discrimination suits before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled they were secular teachers, not ministers.

FFRF’s brief is unique in warning the court that adopting the test preferred by the defendants would have an immediate, devastating impact on the civil rights of more than 1 million health care employees — a point that is even more pertinent now than when the brief was filed. FFRF partnered with fellow amicus curiae American Medical Women’s Association to get this on the record. Approximately 15 percent of all U.S. hospitals are Catholic-owned, with an additional 4 percent of hospitals operated by other religious organizations.

“This court and this country stand at a fork in the road,” FFRF’s brief concluded. “One road leads to an unprecedented limitation on the people’s ability to democratically legislate civil rights protections. . . . A second road leads to a nation whose inhabitants know their government provides recourse in the face of invidious reproach or termination based on a person’s ‘race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,’ regardless of where they work.”

The Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision on the case by June 29 at the latest.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the largest national association of freethinkers, has more than 32,000 members and several chapters all over the country. FFRF Attorneys Patrick Elliott, Sam Grover and Brendan Johnson prepared its brief.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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