Kristen Biel was just finishing her first year of teaching fifth grade at St. James School when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2014. The Catholic school outside Los Angeles terminated her contract two months later, just after she went on medical leave to begin chemotherapy treatment.
Agnes Morrissey-Berru had years of experience when she was fired from her teaching job in 2015 by Our Lady of Guadalupe School, a nearby Catholic school also operated by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Morrissey-Berru said her age--she was 65--was the reason she was let go after teaching fifth and sixth grades there for 16 years.
Morrissey-Berru filed a federal age-discrimination lawsuit against Our Lady of Guadalupe School. Biel claimed disability discrimination in her federal lawsuit against St. James School.
The schools claimed the women were let go for performance reasons, but in their petitions to the U.S. Supreme Court, the schools say the reasons for the firings don't really matter. The schools, represented by the Religious Right legal group Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, argue they are exempt from the teachers' discrimination claims because the teachers count as ministers and the schools, therefore, have unfettered discretion to fire them.
This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear these two cases--St. James School v. Biel and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru --and decide whether the "ministerial exception" to anti-discrimination laws applies to either teacher's case.
Following the rise of civil rights legislation in the 1960s and '70s that increasingly prohibited discrimination on the basis of religion, sex, race and other characteristics, courts crafted the "ministerial exception" to protect houses of worship from being forced to employ faith leaders who didn't fit their theology. Otherwise, a synagogue seeking a rabbi could be accused of religious discrimination if it turned away a non-Jewish applicant, or a Roman Catholic church could be accused of sex discrimination for refusing to hire a woman as a priest.
The ministerial exception was meant to protect the First Amendment rights of faith communities to choose their religious leaders. But religious organizations have tried to push the envelope on who is covered by the exception, and for what reasons.
Americans United voiced concerns about broad interpretations of who is a religious leader and why he or she can be fired in the U.S. Supreme Court's first case (and only case until now) to consider the ministerial exception --Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which was decided in 2012.
That case began when Cheryl Perich of Michigan filed an EEOC disability discrimination claim against the school. Perich had taken a medical leave of absence to seek treatment for narcolepsy, a chronic sleeping disorder. After she began taking medication that treated the condition, she tried to return to work several months later--but...