Supreme Court sides with Catholic schools in discrimination suits

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a pair of Los Angeles-area Catholic schools are immune from discrimination suits brought by two former teachers in a decision that expands the scope of First Amendment safeguards for religious employers.

The 7-2 decision broadens the so-called “ministerial exception,” a First Amendment doctrine that prohibits lawsuits by employees who are considered ministers due to the religious nature of their work.

The former teachers are Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who claims she suffered age discrimination, and now-deceased Kristen Biel, whose widower said Biel’s school fired her in violation of disability laws while she battled breast cancer.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority's opinion that teachers at religious schools qualify under the ministerial exception because they are tasked with instructing their institutions' faith to students.

"The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission," Alito wrote. "Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate."

Alito was joined in the majority by Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, arguing that the decision will give religious institutions license to discriminate against their employees.

"This sweeping result is profoundly unfair," Sotomayor wrote in a dissenting opinion. "Recently, this Court has lamented a perceived 'discrimination against religion.' Yet here it swings the pendulum in the extreme opposite direction, permitting religious entities to discriminate widely and with impunity for reasons wholly divorced from religious beliefs.  

"The inherent injustice in the Court’s conclusion will be impossible to ignore for long, particularly in a pluralistic society like ours," Sotomayor added.

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