Important Supreme Court Case Asks, ‘Are Religious Teachers Ministers? Should the Law Treat Them as Such?’
Who should decide who gets to teach or preach a religion’s doctrines? The faith institution or the government? That question just went before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case involves the laying off of a fifth-grade teacher at Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Catholic school in Hermosa Beach, California. The laid-off teacher wants the government to be the final judge. The school insists the government should have no say in the matter.
Courts have already ruled religious bodies alone have the power to decide about the hiring and firing of the clergy. In this case, the school argues religious teachers also minister, so the government should be kept away from their hiring and firing because of that exemption courts have granted.
There’s a Doctrine for That
“The doctrine is the ministerial exception,” Diana Verm, a senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told CBN News. “And the question is: does it apply to who teaches religion at religious schools?”
Becket Attorney Eric Rassbach argued the point Monday to the justices not in the Supreme Court chambers, but over the phone. That’s the way the Court is holding hearings due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking of teachers at Our Lady of Guadalupe, Rassbach said, “They were absolutely doing much more than teaching about religion. They were teaching it devotionally. And they were proselytizing. Their job number one and their overriding commitment was to teach these kids to become Catholic and to believe in the Catholic faith.”
The Teacher Argues Government Should Punish the School
Verm told CBN News a little more about the teacher laid off by school administrators, saying, “When she failed to meet the school’s expectations, they declined to renew her contract for the next year. She sued, arguing the government should punish Lady of Guadalupe for its decision. So the question is, who gets to decide who teaches the faith to children at religious schools? Is it the church or the state?”
One objection from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was that religious employers would get away without having to follow important laws and protections if the ministerial exception gets spread out to cover lots more people.
“The breadth of the exemptions is staggering,” Ginsburg stated. “That is, these people are exempt from all anti-discrimination laws.”
Exemption May Protect Religious Employers, but How Many Employees Might it Hurt?
Representing the laid-off teacher, attorney Jeffrey Fisher told the Court, “The school’s argument would strip more than 300,000 lay teachers in religious schools across the country of basic employment law protections.”
Rassbach, the school’s attorney, argued government just should not be allowed to interfere with those who minister faith, including religious teachers. In an earlier brief to the Court, he pointed out how the laid-off teacher, in this case, was like a minister, writing, “She taught daily religion classes covering core Catholic doctrine, the sacraments, and how to read the Bible; she led daily and spontaneous prayers with and for her students…”
His colleague Verm added, “So the question is: is she enough of a minister? And we say, if you’re teaching the faith to children at a religious school and you’re teaching them religion more than they get to spend time with the parish priest, you’re a minister of the faith.”
And so, Verm argued, the Catholic church should be covered by the ministerial exception in its dealing with such teachers.
Why This Should Matter to All Faiths
In a short video, Becket said of the doctrine behind the exception, “Just like the government can’t control what your church teaches, it can’t control who teaches it either. Anything less would violate the constitutional guarantee that ‘government shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’”
Verm urges all religious believers to be concerned about the fate of the ministerial exception, saying, “The right of religious schools to choose who passes on the faith to the next generation is important to all faiths. And if the government can dictate who teaches the faith, then they can decide what is being taught as well.”
Strict constitutionalists interpret the First Amendment as being all about preventing the government from controlling religion. And they say that’s what’s at stake in this case – keeping the hands of the state off the church.