Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Writing for the Court, Alito's opinion — joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh — held that although the teachers in these cases were not actually "ministers" by title and did not have as much as religious training as the teacher in Hosanna-Tabor, they are encompassed in the same exception from enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. The Court stated that the First Amendment protects a religious institution's independence on matters of "faith and doctrine" without interference from secular authorities, including selection of its "ministers." But who should qualify as a "minister" subject to this exemption? Recall that the factors of Hosanna-Tabor figured in the oral argument (and recall also that they figured in the Ninth Circuit's opinions). But here, the Court stated that while there may be factors, "What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does," rather than what the employee is titled. Moreover, the "religious institution's explanation of the role of such employees in the life of the religion" is important. Indeed, the religious institution's "explanation" seems determinative. The Court rejected a "rigid formula" for determining whether an employee is within the ministerial exception, concluding instead that:
When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.
The brief concurring opinion by Thomas, joined by Gorsuch, argues that the Court should go further and essentially make the implicit more explicit: the Court should decline to ever weigh in "on the theological question of which positions qualify as 'ministerial.' "
Sotomayor dissenting opinion, joined by Ginsburg, begins:
Two employers fired their employees allegedly because one had breast cancer and the other was elderly. Purporting to rely on this Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012), the majority shields those employers from disability and age-discrimination claims. In the Court’s view, because the employees taught short religion modules at Catholic elementary schools, they were “ministers” of the Catholic faith and thus could be fired for any reason, whether religious or nonreligious, benign or bigoted, without legal recourse. The Court reaches this result even though the teachers taught primarily secular subjects, lacked substantial religious titles and training, and were not even required to be Catholic. In foreclosing the teachers’ claims, the Court skews the facts, ignores the applicable standard of review, and collapses Hosanna-Tabor’s careful analysis into a single consideration: whether a church thinks its employees play an important religious role. Because that simplistic approach has no basis in law and strips thousands of school- teachers of their legal protections, I respectfully dissent.
For the dissent, the Court's conclusion has "grave consequences," noting that it is estimated that over 100,000 secular teachers employed by religiously-affiliated schools are now without employment protections. Further, it contrasts Esponiza v. Montana Dept of Revenue, decided this Term, in which the Court "lamented a perceived 'discrimination against religion,'" but 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 dissent concludes with a hope that the Court will be "deft" enough to "cabin the consequences" of this ministerial exception, but given the current composition of the Court, that hope seems a narrow one.