"US Supreme Court West Facade" by Matt Wade / CC BY-SA 3.0

Supreme Court to hear 2 cases about when religious employers can ignore civil rights laws

May 4, 2020

By Ian Millhiser

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel, are difficult cases, which the Court will hear in a rare teleconferenced oral argument next Monday. They concern whether two Catholic school teachers qualify as “ministers,” and are therefore beyond the reach of workplace civil rights laws.

In Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC (2012), the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment enshrines a “ministerial exemption” to anti-discrimination laws. As Chief Justice John Roberts explained for the Court in Hosanna-Tabor, the Constitution’s “Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.”

This prohibition on laws regulating how religious groups choose their own ministers is so broad that it even permits such groups to engage in invidious discrimination. A church may fire a minister, for example, because that minister is black, or because they are gay, or because they’ve become pregnant, even though federal law prohibits race and pregnancy discrimination, and many states have laws barring anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

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