This case centered on two teachers fired by Catholic elementary schools in Los Angeles: Kristin Biel and Agnes Morrissey-Berru. Kristin Biel was fired from her job as a fifth-grade teacher at St. James Catholic School after taking medical leave to receive treatment for breast cancer. She filed suit against the school for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Around the same time, Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who had taught sixth and then fifth and grade at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, was moved to a part-time position and later fired. Like Biel, she sued the school for employment discrimination, in her case under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, arguing that the school fired her based on her age so that it could replace her with a younger teacher.
In both cases, the schools argued that the former teachers were ministers, seeking to take advantage of a legal doctrine called the “ministerial exception,” which allows religious employers to avoid liability when they take adverse employment actions against “ministers”—vital preachers and teachers of the faith. The federal district courts both ruled that Biel and Morrissey-Berru were ministers. But on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that neither Biel nor Morrissey-Berru was a minister.
The schools sought review from the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. Americans United, along with the ACLU and the Anti-Defamation League, filed an amicus brief explaining that the ministerial exception comes at a significant cost, essentially stripping ministerial employees of many civil-rights protections. We argued that, in light of this cost, courts must consider all the circumstances surrounding the employee’s job in determining whether an employee is a minister, rather than applying a rigid, one-size-fits-all rule. Under that approach, while Morrissey-Berru would be a minister, Biel would not.
In June 2020, the Supreme Court held that both teachers were ministers and therefore could not proceed with their lawsuits against their former employers. The Court explained that application of the ministerial exception should focus most heavily on what the employee actually did in their job, emphasizing Biel and Morrissey-Berru’s roles as their students’ primary teachers of religion. But the Court declined to set out a more rigid test for when an employee is or is not a minister.