Supreme Court

Supreme Court Strengthens First Amendment Protections for Religious Employers

SCOTUS rules 7-2 in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru.


In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2012), a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court held that the "ministerial exception" to federal anti-discrimination law shielded a parochial school from a federal disability lawsuit filed by a discharged teacher. The school's personnel decisions, the Court said, are guarded by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment which, in the Court's words, "protects a religious group's right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments."

In a 7-2 ruling issued today, the Court doubled down on that principle. At issue in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru were employment discrimination claims filed on behalf of two Catholic school teachers, which allege that they were fired for reasons of health and age, respectively. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito held that the "ministerial exception" to federal anti-discrimination law bars the federal courts from hearing these suits.

"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 missions," Alito wrote. "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."

Alito's opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and by Justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh.

Writing in dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, complained that because of the Court's decision, employees at religious schools "could be fired for any reason, whether religious or nonreligious, benign or bigoted, without legal recourse." The dissenters would have denied the ministerial exception.

Last month, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, Justice Neil Gorsuch led the Court in strengthening federal anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender employees. That ruling, which centered on the employment practices of secular entities, led some religious groups to worry that Bostock would eventually be applied to religious employers as well, thereby undercutting the Court's previous rulings in favor of the free exercise rights of religious institutions.

Today's decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School suggests that those worries may have been overblown. Thanks to a seven-justice majority, the ministerial exception now stands on even stronger legal grounds.