FFRF: Supreme Court’s Guadalupe ruling a setback to workers nationwide

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is decrying today’s unwarranted expansion of a religious exemption by the U.S. Supreme Court as a blow to the rights of employees everywhere.

“The Supreme Court is allowing religious employers a broad opportunity to discriminate against employees. Their workers now will have less protection under civil-rights laws,” says Dan Barker, FFRF co-president.

The consolidated cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel dealt with the “ministerial exception” to civil rights laws, which allow religious organizations to fire their “ministerial” employees for any reason — even because of race, sex, religion, age, national origin, etc. Today’s ruling, which dealt with the firing of two teachers at different Catholic schools, harmfully expands this exception under the guise of the religion clauses of the First Amendment.

“When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow,” Justice Samuel Alito writes for the 7-2 majority opinion.

In a strong dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, points out the potentially dire societal consequences of the ruling.

“The court is not only wrong on the facts, but its error also risks upending antidiscrimination protections for many employees of religious entities,” she states. “Recently, this court has lamented a perceived ‘discrimination against religion.’ (Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue) Yet here it swings the pendulum in the extreme opposite direction, permitting religious entities to discriminate widely and with impunity for reasons wholly divorced from religious beliefs. The inherent injustice in the court’s conclusion will be impossible to ignore for long, particularly in a pluralistic society like ours.”

A bit of background: Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who is not a practicing Catholic, sued her employer, the Our Lady of Guadalupe School (based in Hermosa Beach, Calif.) for age discrimination, when the school failed to renew 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 since died, with the case continuing under the aegis of her widower, Darryl Biel.) Morrissey-Berru and Biel argued they did not serve as ministers, but as teachers. Both had won the right to pursue their discrimination suits before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Under today’s ruling, other employees who were never designated as ministers or considered themselves to be ministers will potentially lose legal protection. FFRF is concerned that religious organizations will continue to press the boundaries of the ministerial exception in order to shield themselves against secular anti-discrimination laws.

“Organizations are already attempting to circumvent civil rights laws by gaming the ministerial exception, and this decision will make it easier for them to do so,” says FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott.

In an amicus brief filed before the court in March, FFRF had asked the high court to reject such overbroad firing practices. FFRF’s brief was 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, while employing many staff who are not Catholic, with an additional 4 percent of hospitals operated by other religious organizations.

Sotomayor’s dissent reiterates this point, noting that more than 100,000 secular teachers may be put at risk. She adds, “And that says nothing of the rights of countless coaches, camp counselors, nurses, social-service workers, in-house lawyers, media-relations personnel, and many others who work for religious institutions.”

In granting religious entities such overbroad leeway, the Supreme Court has inflicted grievous harm by denying equal justice under the law.

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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