WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a victory for the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty, the U.S. Supreme Court has reaffirmed the right of religious schools to be free from government meddling in decisions involving religious doctrine and who is allowed to teach that doctrine. In a 7-2 ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Agnes Morrisey-Beru and St. James School v. Darryl Biel, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws that protects religious employers from certain lawsuits. Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute had filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing that the government has no jurisdiction to second-guess church decisions on who can act and serve as “ministers.”
Affiliate attorney Nathan A. Adams IV of Holland & Knight assisted The Rutherford Institute in advancing the arguments in the amicus brief.
“Those who subscribe to the notion that society should be free from religion tend to use the principle of a separation of church and state as a bludgeon to eradicate religion from the public sphere when in fact the First Amendment provides for freedom of religion,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “In fact, the so-called ‘wall of separation between Church and State’—a term coined by Thomas Jefferson—was intended to refer to a wall placed around the church in order to protect it from any government interference with its rights to religious freedom. That is exactly the kind of shield against government meddling needed in this case.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe School and St. James School are private religious schools located in Los Angeles, California.
Each is operated by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to serve the educational needs of the children of church families within the parishes where they are located.
Their mission is to grow a Catholic faith community that reflects both a Catholic philosophy of education and the doctrines of the Catholic Church.
To that end, teachers hired by the schools have expressly religious roles, even as they engage in instruction on secular topics such as math and social studies.
Thus, the teachers taught daily religious classes, instructed the children in how to attend Catholic Mass, and led the children in daily prayers.
Teachers at the schools have a special role of teaching children Catholic values and providing a faith-based education.
In 2016, a teacher at Our Lady of Guadalupe filed a lawsuit against the school alleging the school engaged in unlawful age discrimination after it did not renew the teacher’s contract when it was disappointed with her implementation of a program involving religious instruction.
In 2015, a teacher at St. James School sued the school alleging disability discrimination.
Each case was thrown out by the district courts, which found that the teachers were involved in conveying the Catholic faith to students and so were “ministers” who could not sue the school or church for their non-retention.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the rulings that the “ministerial exception” applied to the teachers, deciding they did not have “religious leadership roles.”
The Rutherford Institute subsequently filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the First Amendment forbids government interference with a church’s decision on who will teach religious doctrine.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.
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