Teaching maths, history and economics is ministry in a Catholic school

The question of religious schools’ right to hire and fire teachers has been decided by the US Supreme Court.

The Court found in favor of two Catholic schools in California, ruling that a “ministerial exception” to government interference applies to teachers in religious schools.

The justices ruled in a 7-2 decision that teachers at Catholic grade schools qualified for the “ministers exception” established by the court in the 2012 Hosana Tabor case.

“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,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the majority.

“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.”

The argument behind the court case arose when two California Catholic schools did not renew the contracts of two teachers in 2014 and 2015.

In separate cases combined into one by the Supreme Court, the teachers alleged their dismissals were based on disability and age, not poor performance.

Lawyers for the schools argued teachers in Catholic schools were the “primary agents” by which the faith was taught to students.

The argument – and questions from the bench – focused on how broadly the ministerial exception could be applied to the employees of religious schools.

The schools claimed they were exempt from employment discrimination laws because the government cannot interfere in churches’ and religious institutions’ employment decisions regarding hiring and firing ministers.

The teachers’ suits were both dismissed by federal courts, and then reinstated by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeal.

“There is abundant record evidence that [both teachers] performed vital religious duties,” the Supreme Court ruled.

“Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught, and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility.”

The decision about the religious schools’ right to hire and fire their staff comes just weeks after the Court’s ruling that employers cannot fire employees because of their sexual orientation or “gender identity.” At that time, Justice Neil Gorsuch acknowledged that religious freedom cases related to the decision would probably come before the Court in the future.


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