WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that federal employment discrimination laws do not apply to teachers whose duties include instruction in religion at schools run by churches.
The vote was 7 to 2, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor in dissent.
The court has been active in considering the relationship between church and state, generally siding with religious groups. It has ruled in recent years that a state must let a church participate in a government aid program, that a war memorial in the shape of a cross could remain on public property, and that town boards may start their meetings with sectarian prayers. Last week, it said state programs that provide scholarships to students in private schools may not exclude religious schools.
The new cases considered another aspect of the church-and-state divide: what role the government can play in regulating religious institutions.
The new cases — Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267, and St. James School v. Darryl Biel, No. 19-348 — were brought by teachers in Catholic schools in California who sued their employers for job discrimination.
One of them, Kristen Biel, sued under the Americans With Disabilities Act after she learned she had breast cancer and her contract was not renewed. (She died last year.) The other, Agnes Morrissey-Berru, sued for age discrimination after her own contract was not renewed.
The schools responded that the teachers were covered by a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws established by the Supreme Court.
That exception, the court said, in a 2012 decision, was needed to ensure that churches and other religious groups were free to choose and dismiss employees who perform religious work without government interference.
In that decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Chief Justice John Roberts described the conflict.
“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” he wrote. “But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.”
That decision gave only limited guidance about how courts should decide which employees were covered, saying the court was “reluctant to adopt a rigid formula.”
The 2012 case concerned Cheryl Perich, who had been a teacher at a Lutheran school in Michigan. Perich said she was fired for pursuing an employment discrimination claim based on a disability, narcolepsy.
Perich was a “called” teacher who had completed religious training and whom the school considered a minister. The Supreme Court ruled that she was subject to the exception and could not sue.
The new cases concerned teachers without formal training or titles but who taught Catholic doctrine and other subjects.
Federal trial judges dismissed both cases, saying the ministerial exception protected the schools. But the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, reversed those rulings, allowing the cases to proceed.
In separate decisions, the appeals court said the teachers were not covered by the exception established by the 2012 decision because they were not considered ministers by either themselves or their employers, as reflected in their job titles.
“Morrissey-Berru’s formal title of ‘teacher’ was secular,” a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit wrote in an unsigned opinion. “Aside from taking a single course on the history of the Catholic church, Morrissey-Berru did not have any religious credential, training, or ministerial background. Morrissey-Berru also did not hold herself out to the public as a religious leader or minister.”
“She committed to incorporate Catholic values and teachings into her curriculum, as evidenced by several of the employment agreements she signed, led her students in daily prayer, was in charge of liturgy planning for a monthly Mass, and directed and produced a performance by her students during the school’s Easter celebration every year,” the opinion said. “However, an employee’s duties alone are not dispositive.”
Nine judges dissented from the full Ninth Circuit’s decision to deny rehearing in Biel’s case, saying the three-judge panel had made a mistake in focusing on Biel’s job title rather than the substance of what she did.
“Courts are ill-equipped to gauge the religious significance of titles or the sufficiency of training,” Judge Ryan D. Nelson wrote. “Biel’s title may appear to carry little or no religious significance to a court unfamiliar with the customs of Catholic education, but Biel’s employment at St. James had significant religious substance.”
Nelson drew support from a concurrence in the 2012 decision that had featured an unusual alliance. Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, wrote that the exception “should apply to any ‘employee’ who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.”