Supreme Court Wary of Giving Religious Schools Broad Legal Shield

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(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court seemed divided on calls by religious groups for a broader exemption from discrimination suits as the justices heard appeals from two Roman Catholic grade schools fighting bias claims after firing teachers.

The Southern California schools told the justices in a telephone argument Monday that the Constitution gives them broad power to hire and fire employees who carry out important religious functions, such as teaching children the Catholic faith.

The schools got a mixed reception, with some justices wondering whether courts were equipped to determine which school employees met that test.

“How is a court supposed to determine what is a significant religious function and what is an insignificant one?” Chief Justice John Roberts asked.

The schools’ appeals seek to extend a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that shields religious organizations from employment-discrimination claims by ministers. That ruling threw out a suit by a grade-school teacher who had completed a required theology program and been given the title “minister of religion.”

The court’s most liberal justices expressed alarm that the 2012 ruling might be extended to cover a broader group of teachers and school officials. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the exemption could block a lawsuit by a teacher fired after reporting a student’s complaint about sexual harassment by a priest.

‘Staggering’ Exemption

“The breadth of the exemption is staggering -- that is, that the people are exempt from all anti-discrimination laws,” Ginsburg said on Monday.

Agnes Morrissey-Berru is seeking to sue Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Los Angeles for age discrimination. The other suit accuses St. James School in Torrance of discriminating on the basis of disability when it fired Kristen Biel after she had undergone chemotherapy. Biel died of breast cancer in June, but her husband is continuing to press the case.

The schools’ appeals said both women had important religious duties, including teaching classes about Catholicism, leading prayers and participating in Mass with the students.

The court’s conservative justices indicated they would back the schools. Justice Samuel Alito suggested that faith-based schools should have broad power to determine who teaches religion to young students.

“That’s the very reason why these schools are set up,” Alito said. “Otherwise, there would be no reason. The students could go to the public school and not have to pay any tuition.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch said that, in other areas of First Amendment law, the court doesn’t second-guess the “sincerely held” beliefs of religious groups.

“Why would we do it here and second-guess who they deem a minister?” Gorsuch asked.

The Supreme Court’s conservative wing has been broadly supportive of religious rights in recent years. Six justices -- the five conservatives, plus liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor -- are either practicing Catholics or were educated in Catholic schools.

The cases are Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 19-267, and St. James School v. Biel, 19-348.

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