The US Supreme Court has been busy hearing arguments over the last month, and the team at JML Law recently represented their client in proceedings that will help define the extent to which religious organizations can be exempt from discrimination lawsuits filed by employees. This case will have significant ramifications to employment law and protections for “ministerial exceptions” when it comes to hiring or firing in the United States.
The US Supreme Court recently heard arguments in two separate lawsuits regarding whether or not two Catholic schools in California were allowed to claim they were immune from wrongful termination and bias lawsuits filed by two teachers.
In these separate cases, two teachers claim that they were terminated from their positions for illegal reasons. In contrast, the two Catholic schools say that they are exempt from facing lawsuits in these termination cases based on a court-created doctrine that says the First Amendment prohibits lawsuits against religious organizations hiring and firing ministers in violation of anti-biased laws. This doctrine was first recognized in a 2012 Supreme Court case.
However, The US Court of Appeals for the NinthCircuit decided that the lawsuit brought by these two teachers could proceed because their religious responsibilities were not enough to allow their respective schools to block the bias lawsuits. In their ruling,the Ninth Circuit court said that the teachers’ “titles, training, and responsibilities” did not prove they were ministers.
Attorneys Jennifer Lipski, Nicholas W. Sarris, and Cathryn Fund of JML Law represented Kristen Biel in her case against St. James School.
This case revolves around a fifth-great teacher, Kristen Biel, who says she was terminated because she let the school now that she would be undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer treatment. The school claimed ministerial exemption in this case. However,the ninth Circuit held that Biel could press claims that she was fired for disclosing she would miss work due to the medical treatment because she performed only “limited” religious functions, including teaching religious themes in her class. Biel has since passed away, but her estate has continued to be represented by JML Law as the case proceeds.
The outcome of this case has the potential to expand or contract the scope of the “ministerial exception.”
During arguments in front of the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that in neither of these cases did the teachers claim they were fired because of the way they taught religion. Sotomayor also expressed concern that the schools’ proposed test for applying ministerial exemption would shield them, not only from anti-discrimination laws but also from a wide range of pay and leave statutes.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg raised similar points, and found it very disturbing that a worker can be fired or not hired “for a reason that has absolutely nothing to do with religion, like needing to take care of chemotherapy.”
A decision in this case is due later this year, and hearings were held via video conference and live-streamed to the public through C-SPAN and other outlets.