First Amendment Religion Clause Barred Court From Entertaining Employment Discrimination Claims Brought By Elementary School Teachers Against Private Religious Schools

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Sep 30, 2020

Agnes Morrissey-Berru worked as a lay fifth and sixth grade teacher during her time employed by Our Lady of Guadalupe School (OLG), a Roman Catholic primary school in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.  Morrissey-Berru entered into annual employment agreements with OLG, which included the school’s mission “to develop and promote a Catholic School Faith Community” and advised her that all her duties and responsibilities as a teacher were to be performed according to this mission.  The employment agreement also set forth that the school’s hiring and retention decisions were guided by its Catholic mission, that teachers were required to model and promote Catholic faith and morals, and that teachers could be terminated for conduct that brought discredit upon the school or the Catholic Church.  Morrissey-Berru’s employment had to be approved by the pastor of the parish, a Catholic priest.  While employed by OLG, Morrissey-Berru took religious education courses at the school’s request and was expected to attend faculty prayer services.

Morrissey-Berru taught all subjects, including religion.  In her position as a teacher, Morrissey-Berru served as a catechist, a person responsible for the faith formation of the students in their charge each day, and taught a Catholic curriculum.  Morrissey-Berru served an integral role in facilitating her students’ participation in Mass, communion, confession, altar services, and prayer.  Moreover, OLG reviewed Morrissey-Berru’s performance according to Catholic values and standards.

In 2014, OLG asked Morrissey-Berru to move from a full-time to a part-time position and then declined to renew her contract the following year.  Morrissey-Berru filed a claim against OLG under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) alleging that OLG demoted her than declined to renew her contract so the school could hire a younger teacher to fill her position.  OLG defended by asserting that its decision was based on Morrissey-Berru’s classroom performance and problems implementing new curriculum.

At the district court, OLG successfully moved for summary judgment under the ministerial exception, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision.

Kristin Biel worked as a lay teacher for about a year and half at St. James School (St. James), a Catholic primary school located in Los Angeles.  Biel entered into an employment agreement with St. James that “set out the [school’s] religious mission; required teachers to serve that mission, imposed commitments regarding religious instruction, worship, and personal modeling of the faith; and explained that teachers’ performance would be reviewed on those bases.”  Biel’s performance was evaluated according to Catholic values and standards and the school’s principal, a Catholic nun, evaluated Biel’s performance according to these values and standards.

Biel, who was Catholic, taught all subjects at St. James, including religion for 200 minutes each week.  Biel also led student prayer at least twice each school day and served an integral role in teaching students about the Catholic Faith, including Mass, confession, the sacraments, social teachings, history, morality, practices, and prayers.

After Biel’s one and a half years at St. James, the school declined to renew her contract.  Biel filed a suit against St. James, alleging that her contract was not renewed because she had requested a leave of absence to obtain treatment for breast cancer.  St. James contended that its decision was based on Biel’s poor performance and, specifically, her “failure to observe the planned curriculum and keep an orderly classroom.”

At the district court, St. James successfully moved for summary judgment under the ministerial exception, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision as it had in Morrissey-Berru’s case.

The ministerial exception requires courts “to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions.”  The ministerial exception stems from the First Amendment Religion Clauses, namely that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  The Religion Clauses “protect the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide matters ‘of faith and doctrine’ without government intrusion.”  According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the ministerial exception preserves a church’s independent authority to select, supervise, and remove ministers without secular interference to prevent the risk that “a wayward minister’s preaching, teaching, and counseling could contradict the church’s tenets and lead the congregation away from the faith.”

In its consolidated decision regarding both Morrissey-Berru and Biel’s cases, the Supreme Court discussed its significant decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012) 565 U.S. 171.  In Hosanna-Tabor, Cheryl Perich, a teacher at an Evangelical Lutheran school, filed a suit against the school, alleging that she was terminated because of a disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The school contended that it terminated Perich because she was violating Lutheran doctrine that “disputes should be resolved internally and not be going to outside authorities.”  The Supreme Court held that the ministerial exception applied to Perich’s case and barred her suit.  The Supreme Court specifically noted that Perich had been given the title of “minister”; Perich’s position “reflected a significant degree of religious training followed by a formal process of commissioning”; Perich held herself out as a minister of the Church; and “Perich’s job duties reflected a role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.”

The Supreme Court explained that the factors it relied upon in Hosanna-Tabor are instructive, but are not inflexible requirements due to the differences among various religious groups, including different titles and roles, training needed to serve different roles, structures, and religious tenets, among other factors.  For example, an employee need not have the title “minister” or a similar counterpart, such as priest, nun, rabbi, or imam, in order to qualify for the ministerial exception because having a title itself is not indicative of whether the individual serves an important role in teaching the tenets of their faith.  Further, relying too heavily on titles would risk extending the ministerial exception privilege to more formally organized religions over less formally organized ones.

According to the Supreme Court, the essential question in the ministerial exception analysis is what the employee does.  The Supreme Court discussed the important role teachers at religious schools of all faiths and denominations serve in educating young people in their faith and proliferating the faith to the next generation.

The Supreme Court found that Morrissey-Berru and Biel qualified for the ministerial exception articulated in Hosanna-Tabor because both teachers performed vital religious duties for their schools and their students.  Both teachers had the responsibility to educate and form students according to the Catholic faith as set forth in their employment agreements and faculty handbooks.  Both teachers guided their students in the faith, prayed with students, attended mass with their students, and prepared their students for participation in religious activities.  While Morrissey-Berru and Biel had less religious training than Perich in Hosanna-Tabor and did not have the title of “minister,” the schools they worked for saw them as playing a vital role in carrying out the mission of the church.  The Supreme Court noted that the school’s definition and explanation of the employee’s role in situations like this one is important.

The Supreme Court also explained that it disagreed with the Ninth Circuit’s rigid test, which found that Morrissey-Berru and Biel did not fall within the ministerial exception.  First, the Ninth Circuit placed too much weight on the fact that Morrissey-Berru and Biel did not have clerical titles similar to the title of minister.  Second, the Ninth Circuit placed too much significance on the fact that Morrissey-Berru and Biel had less religious training than Perich in Hosanna-Tabor.  Third, the Ninth Circuit in Biel’s case “inappropriately diminished” the extent of the role she served in her students’ spiritual and religious practices through her position.

The Supreme Court declined to adopt a rigid test and instead stated: “[w]hen 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.”  The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the Ninth Circuit’s decisions in Morrissey-Berru and Biel’s cases.

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru (2020) 140 S.Ct. 2049.


In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, religious schools should consider reviewing their employment contracts and employee handbooks and confirming that they accurately and completely set forth their religious mission and their employees’ responsibilities related to that religious mission.