The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider giving religious organizations a bigger exemption from discrimination suits, accepting appeals from two Roman Catholic grade schools fighting bias claims after firing teachers.
The appeals by Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Los Angeles and St. James School in Torrance, California, say the Constitution gives them the broad power to fire employees who carry out important religious functions.
The appeals seek to extend a Supreme Court ruling that shields religious organizations from employment-discrimination claims by ministers. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Roberts said in that case a religious group has a constitutional right to “shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.”
The 2012 ruling threw out a suit by a grade-school teacher who had completed a required theology program and been given the title “minister of religion.”
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the circumstances were different in the California cases because the two fifth-grade teachers held the title of “teacher,” lacked any special religious training and didn’t hold themselves out as a religious leaders or ministers.
Agnes Morrissey-Berru is seeking to sue Our Lady of Guadalupe for age discrimination. The other suit accuses St. James of discriminating on the basis of disability when it fired Kristen Biel after she had undergone chemotherapy. Biel died of breast cancer in June, but her husband is continuing to press the case.
The schools’ appeals said both women had important religious duties, including teaching classes about Catholicism, leading prayers and participating in Mass with the students.
The Supreme Court’s conservative wing has been broadly supportive of religious rights in recent years. Six justices — the five conservatives, plus liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor — are either practicing Catholics or were educated in Catholic schools.
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