Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru



The Supreme Court is elevating false religious freedom over fundamental civil rights.

On July 8, 2020 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru. In a 7-2 decision the court gave a broad interpretation of the “ministerial exception” by inviting religious schools to treat more of their lay teachers as ministers and deny them nondiscrimination protections. More simply put, houses of worship and religious schools get a free pass to discriminate against their educators.

This decision demonstrates how the Supreme Court continues to redefine religious freedom – twisting a shield that protects us into a sword to harm others. The court is elevating a distorted notion of religious freedom over the basic employment rights of educators. 

The Guadalupe ruling puts about 300,000 lay teachers at religious schools across the country at risk of being stripped of significant workplace legal protections. Religious employers should not be able to abuse this exemption to sidestep civil-rights laws and fire educators because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability. 

Case Background

The “ministerial exception” is a legal doctrine that exempts religious institutions from anti-discrimination laws. The First Amendment guarantees that houses of worship get to decide—without interference from the government—how to preach, practice and disseminate their religious beliefs. That includes selecting their clergy. 

This ruling involved two new cases, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel, which involved two fifth-grade lay teachers from private Catholic schools in California:

  • Kristen Biel was fired after she was diagnosed with breast cancer; she has since died. She taught regular secular subjects; would pray with students but not lead them in prayers; monitored student behavior during Mass but didn’t lead services or select liturgy; and had no special religious training. Her school didn’t require teachers to be Catholic. 
  • Agnes Morrissey-Berru was fired, after a decade of teaching, when she turned 64. She taught regular secular subjects plus a daily religion class; she led daily classroom prayers; she planned liturgy for Mass once a month; and she was a certified Catechist with training in Catholic doctrine.

In a previous case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, the Supreme Court had already applied the ministerial exception to teachers at religious schools who perform important religious functions.