Editorial: A Supreme Court decision on religious teachers must be read narrowly


In ruling 7 to 2 that two teachers at Catholic schools couldn’t challenge their dismissals under civil rights laws, the Supreme Court on Wednesday rightly focused on the fact the teachers were “entrusted with the responsibility of instructing students in the faith.” Thus they were covered by a “ministerial exception” to civil rights laws announced by the court in a 2012 case involving a teacher at a Lutheran school.

But some language in Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s majority opinion might tempt religious schools to try to insulate themselves from discrimination claims from any employee, including bus drivers, cafeteria workers, computer technicians and teachers of strictly secular subjects. That would be a misreading of the central holding of Wednesday’s ruling and a disaster for civil rights.

The teachers who’d brought the case worked at two Catholic schools in Los Angeles County. Agnes Morrissey-Berru alleged age discrimination after her contract to teach at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach wasn’t renewed. Kristen Biel said that she was discharged from St. James School in Torrance after she had requested a leave of absence to obtain cancer treatment, a potential violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Biel died last year, but her husband continued with her lawsuit.)


Both teachers taught religion along with other subjects and prepared students for religious activities. Alito said that those “vital religious duties” means that the teachers were covered by the “ministerial exception.” Rooted in the 1st Amendment’s protection for the free exercise of religion, that exception is based on the important principle that government, including the courts, shouldn’t intrude in the decisions of a religious body about who should instill the teachings of the faith.

This exception unfortunately means that some employees who suffered discrimination will never get their day in court. That is why it must be strictly limited to employees who, in Alito’s words, are responsible for “educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith.”

Yet some comments in Alito’s opinion might be seized on by those who favor a broader exception. For example, he refers to the fact that Morrissey-Berru was expected to “model” Catholic faith and morals. The same could be said of all employees of a religious school.

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor worried that the decision threatened the rights of more than 100,000 secular teachers and that its reasoning “risks rendering almost every Catholic parishioner and parent in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles a Catholic minister.” Her concerns may be alarmist, but much depends on how religious schools respond to the ruling.

The Catholic Church in particular has identified itself with the rights of workers and the quest for racial justice, and it has acknowledged that gay people are subjected to “unjust discrimination.” It would be betraying its own values if it attempted to expand the ministerial exception to deprive employees of Catholic schools of their right to legal redress for discrimination.