Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrisey-Berru (consolidated with St. James School v. Biel)
Whether the First Amendment’s religion clauses prevent civil courts from adjudicating employment-discrimination claims brought by an employee against her religious employer, when the employee carried out important religious functions.Advocates
- Eric C. Rassbach & Morgan L. Ratner, for the Petitioners
- Morgan L. Ratner for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the Petitioners
- Jeffrey L. Fisher, for the Respondents
Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, and St.James School v. Biel, are consolidated cases in each of which a religious school invokes the ministerial exception as a constitutional defense to a claim that the school fired a teacher in violation of federal law. One teacher alleges her employer fired her because she developed breast cancer and needed an accommodation for her disability; the other claims that her employer terminated her employment solely because of her age. Both women are lay educators who teach a number of subjects, including religion, and who have participated with their students in prayer or worship.
I think that what needed to be clear and dominant in the teachers’ argument before the Court was at times a bit tangled and obscure. And, in one instance, I suspect that a substantive mistake made things worse. I have in mind the respondents’ suggestion that whereas the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment protects religious groups’ prerogative to pray and teach as they wish as part of religious freedom, the ministerial exception is grounded in the Establishment Clause and protects interests that are fundamentally different. This claim is both substantively mistaken and confusing.
Mr. Fisher, who argued on behalf of the lay schoolteachers, worked hard and well in a difficult oral argument, and it is unfair to be critical in retrospect. But I do think it would have helped his clients if he had more clearly set out some aspects of the teachers’ position at the outset. To that end, I offer two answers Mr. Fisher might have given early in his argument.
The first question to Mr. Fisher was from the Chief Justice, who begins the questioning in the Court’s COVID-era remote oral arguments. My first response addresses this opening exchange. To serve the same objective of setting out clear lines of argument as early as possible, I also address Mr. Fisher’s first exchange with Justice Thomas, who followed Chief Justice Roberts.Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrisey-Berru (consolidated with St. James School v. Biel) on Oyez: https://www.oyez.org/cases/2019/19-267