Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru

591 U.S. ___ (2020)

Case Year: 2020

Case Ruling: 7-2, Reversed and remanded

Opinion Justice: 

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Alito, Breyer, Gorsuch, Kagan, Kavanaugh, Roberts, Thomas


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Thomas


1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Sotomayor


2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


Employment law in the United States touches on a variety of subjects, including minimum wages, pensions, unemployment compensation, and worker safety.  For the most part, legal conflicts over employment law require judges to interpret the meaning of federal or state laws, bureaucratic regulations, or the decisions of administrative agencies; courts rarely turn to the U.S. Constitution for guidance.  In recent years, however, the Supreme Court has been called upon to reconcile employment discrimination law with the religious protections of the First Amendment.  Most notable was the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012).  In that instance, the justices were asked whether a church was exempt from federal discrimination law when a teacher from that church’s school alleged that she was unlawfully dismissed.  Because the teacher was formally recognized by her church as a minister, leading her students in religious worship, the Court unanimously supported the church by upholding what is commonly referred to as the “ministerial exception.”  That means that decisions about how a church will be governed are not subject to judicial review.  To allow courts to determine who could or could not administer to the faithful would interfere with a church’s free exercise of religion.  Not only that, it would enmesh the government in the decision making of a religious organization, which would violate the establishment clause, as well.  Jews, for example, have the right to insist that rabbis be observant practitioners of Judaism, even if it is a clear form of religious discrimination.  Likewise, Roman Catholics can restrict the priesthood to men, though it is an obvious example of gender discrimination.

            But does the ministerial exception require that a person formally serve in the capacity of a minister?  What if someone works for a church in a non-clerical role but still plays an important role in faith formation?  That question came before the Supreme Court in 2020 in two instances, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel, cases involving employment discrimination claims by grade school teachers against Catholics schools in Los Angeles.  The first case involved a teacher who alleged that she was subjected to age discrimination when the school demoted and then dismissed her, in order to replace her with a younger teacher.  The second case concerned a teacher who asserted that her contract was not renewed because she had sought medical leave related to her breast cancer.  Neither teacher carried any ecclesiastical title, but both teachers taught their students all subjects, including religion.  That meant that these teachers not only instructed their students on the doctrines of the Catholic Church but prayed with them, prepared them for religious sacraments, and helped them develop their Catholic faith, as well.  After the lawsuits were filed, the schools claimed that the dismissals were subject to the ministerial exception, because the teachers played such an active role in the religious life of their students.  The teachers argued that the exception should not apply; they were lay teachers, not members of the clergy with religious authority.  Initially, both schools were successful, but after the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed those decisions, the schools sought review from the Supreme Court.

JUSTICE ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.

The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Among other things, the Religion Clauses protect the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide matters “of faith and doctrine” without government intrusion. Hosanna-Tabor [Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012)].  State interference in that sphere would obviously violate the free exercise of religion, and any attempt by government to dictate or even to influence such matters would constitute one of the central attributes of an establishment of religion. The First Amendment outlaws such intrusion.

The independence of religious institutions in matters of “faith and doctrine” is closely linked to independence in what we have termed “matters of church government.” This does not mean that religious institutions enjoy a general immunity from secular laws, but it does protect their autonomy with respect to internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission. And a component of this autonomy is the selection of the individuals who play certain key roles.

The “ministerial exception” was based on this insight. Under this rule, courts are bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions. The rule appears to have acquired the label “ministerial exception” because the individuals involved in pioneering cases were described as “ministers.” Not all pre-Hosanna-Tabor decisions applying the exception involved “ministers” or even members of the clergy.  But it is instructive to consider why a church’s independence on matters “of faith and doctrine” requires the authority to select, supervise, and if necessary, remove a minister without interference by secular authorities. Without that power, a wayward minister’s preaching, teaching, and counseling could contradict the church’s tenets and lead the congregation away from the faith. The ministerial exception was recognized to preserve a church’s independent authority in such matters….

In Hosanna-Tabor, Cheryl Perich, a kindergarten and fourth grade teacher at an Evangelical Lutheran school, filed suit in federal court, claiming that she had been discharged because of a disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).  The school responded that the real reason for her dismissal was her violation of the Lutheran doctrine that disputes should be resolved internally and not by going to outside authorities. We held that her suit was barred by the “ministerial exception” and noted that it “concern[ed] government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church.”  We declined “to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister,” and we added that it was “enough for us to conclude, in this our first case involving the ministerial exception, that the exception covers Perich, given all the circumstances of her employment.”…

In determining whether a particular position falls within the Hosanna-Tabor exception, a variety of factors may be important….In a denomination that uses the term “minister,” conferring that title naturally suggests that the recipient has been given an important position of trust.  In Perich’s case, the title that she was awarded and used demanded satisfaction of significant academic requirements and was conferred only after a formal approval process, and those circumstances also evidenced the importance attached to her role. But our recognition of the significance of those factors in Perich’s case did not mean that they must be met—or even that they are necessarily important—in all other cases.

…Simply giving an employee the title of “minister” is not enough to justify the exception. And by the same token, since many religious traditions do not use the title “minister,” it cannot be a necessary requirement.  Requiring the use of the title would constitute impermissible discrimination, and this problem cannot be solved simply by including positions that are thought to be the counterparts of a “minister,” such as priests, nuns, rabbis, and imams. Nuns are not the same as Protestant ministers. A brief submitted by Jewish organizations makes the point that “Judaism has many ‘ministers,’ ” that is, “the term ‘minister’ encompasses an extensive breadth of religious functionaries in Judaism.” For Muslims, “an inquiry into whether imams or other leaders bear a title equivalent to ‘minister’ can present a troubling choice between denying a central pillar of Islam—i.e., the equality of all believers—and risking loss of ministerial exception protections.”…

For related reasons, the academic requirements of a position may show that the church in question regards the position as having an important responsibility in elucidating or teaching the tenets of the faith. Presumably the purpose of such requirements is to make sure that the person holding the position understands the faith and can explain it accurately and effectively. But insisting in every case on rigid academic requirements could have a distorting effect. This is certainly true with respect to teachers. Teaching children in an elementary school does not demand the same formal religious education as teaching theology to divinity students. Elementary school teachers often teach secular subjects in which they have little if any special training. In addition, religious traditions may differ in the degree of formal religious training thought to be needed in order to teach. In short, these circumstances, while instructive in Hosanna-Tabor, are not inflexible requirements and may have far less significance in some cases.

What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does. And implicit in our decision in Hosanna-Tabor was a recognition that educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school. As we put it, Perich had been entrusted with the responsibility of “transmitting the Lutheran faith to the next generation.” One of the concurrences made the same point, concluding that the exception should include “any ‘employee’ who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.” Hosanna-Tabor (opinion of Alito, J.) (emphasis added)….

When we apply this understanding of the Religion Clauses to the cases now before us, it is apparent that Morrissey-Berru and Biel qualify for the exemption we recognized in Hosanna-Tabor. There is abundant record evidence that they both performed vital religious duties. Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught, and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility….And not only were they obligated to provide instruction about the Catholic faith, but they were also expected to guide their students, by word and deed, toward the goal of living their lives in accordance with the faith. They prayed with their students, attended Mass with the students, and prepared the children for their participation in other religious activities….Their titles did not include the term “minister,” [but] both their schools expressly saw them as playing a vital part in carrying out the mission of the church, and the schools’ definition and explanation of their roles is important. In a country with the religious diversity of the United States, judges cannot be expected to have a complete understanding and appreciation of the role played by every person who performs a particular role in every religious tradition. A religious institution’s explanation of the role of such employees in the life of the religion in question is important.

In holding that Morrissey-Berru and Biel did not fall within the Hosanna-Tabor exception, the Ninth Circuit misunderstood our decision…[where] we called on courts to take all relevant circumstances into account and to determine whether each particular position implicated the fundamental purpose of the exception.…

 …When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.

*  *  *

 For these reasons, the judgment of the Court of Appeals in each case is reversed, and the cases are remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

JUSTICE THOMAS, with whom JUSTICE GORSUCH joins, concurring.

I agree with the Court that Morrissey-Berru’s and Biel’s positions fall within the “ministerial exception,” because, as Catholic school teachers, they are charged with “carry[ing] out [the religious] mission” of the parish schools.  The Court properly notes that “judges have no warrant to second-guess [the schools’] judgment” of who should hold such a position “or to impose their own credentialing requirements.” Accordingly, I join the Court’s opinion in full. I write separately, however, to reiterate my view that the Religion Clauses require civil courts to defer to religious organizations’ good-faith claims that a certain employee’s position is “ministerial.” See Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012) (Thomas, J., concurring).

This deference is necessary because, as the Court rightly observes, judges lack the requisite “understanding and appreciation of the role played by every person who performs a particular role in every religious tradition.” What qualifies as “ministerial” is an inherently theological question, and thus one that cannot be resolved by civil courts through legal analysis. Hosanna-Tabor (Thomas, J., concurring)...

Here, the record confirms the sincerity of petitioners’ claims that, as lay teachers, Morrissey-Berru and Biel held ministerial roles in these parish schools. For example, the Our Lady of Guadalupe Faculty Handbook states that lay teachers serve “special pastoral administrative roles…in the service of the people of God.” (emphasis added). Moreover, their “essential job duties” include “[m]odeling, teaching of and commitment to Catholic religious and moral values.”  And both Morrissey-Berru’s and Biel’s teaching contracts required that their “duties and responsibilities…be performed [with an] overriding commitment” to “develop[ing]…a Catholic School Faith Community” in accordance with “the doctrines, laws and norms of the Catholic Church.”…

  The foregoing is more than enough to sustain the sincerity of petitioners’ claims that Morrissey-Berru and Biel held ministerial roles in the parish schools. Their claims thus warrant this Court’s deference and serve as a sufficient basis for applying the ministerial exception.


Two employers fired their employees allegedly because one had breast cancer and the other was elderly. Purporting to rely on this Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012), the majority shields those employers from disability and age-discrimination claims….In foreclosing the teachers’ claims, the Court skews the facts, ignores the applicable standard of review, and collapses Hosanna-Tabor’s careful analysis into a single consideration: whether a church thinks its employees play an important religious role. Because that simplistic approach has no basis in law and strips thousands of schoolteachers of their legal protections, I respectfully dissent.

Our pluralistic society requires religious entities to abide by generally applicable laws. E,g., Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith (1990)….

Congress, however, has crafted exceptions to protect religious autonomy.  Some antidiscrimination laws, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, permit a religious institution to consider religion when making employment decisions.  Under that Act, a religious organization may also “require that all applicants and employees conform” to the entity’s “religious tenets.”  Title VII further permits a school to prefer “hir[ing] and employ[ing]” people “of a particular religion” if its curriculum “propagat[es]” that religion.  These statutory exceptions protect a religious entity’s ability to make employment decisions—hiring or firing—for religious reasons.

The “ministerial exception,” by contrast, is a judge-made doctrine. This Court first recognized it eight years ago in Hosanna-Tabor, concluding that the First Amendment categorically bars certain antidiscrimination suits by religious leaders against their religious employers.  When it applies, the exception is extraordinarily potent:  It gives an employer free rein to discriminate because of race, sex, pregnancy, age, disability, or other traits protected by law when selecting or firing their “ministers,” even when the discrimination is wholly unrelated to the employer’s religious beliefs or practices.  That is, an employer need not cite or possess a religious reason at all; the ministerial exception even condones animus.

When this Court adopted the ministerial exception, it affirmed the holdings of virtually every federal appellate court that had embraced the doctrine.  Those courts had long understood that the exception’s stark departure from antidiscrimination law is narrow….[and their] approach recognized that a religious entity’s ability to choose its faith leaders—rabbis, priests, nuns, imams, ministers, to name a few—should be free from government interference, but that generally applicable laws still protected most employees.

            This focus on leadership led to a consistent conclusion: Lay faculty, even those who teach religion at church-affiliated schools, are not “ministers.”…

Hosanna-Tabor did not upset this consensus.  Instead, it recognized the ministerial exception’s roots in protecting religious “elections” for “ecclesiastical offices” and guarding the freedom to “select” titled “clergy” and churchwide leaders.  To be sure, the Court stated that the “ministerial exception is not limited to the head of a religious congregation.”  Nevertheless, this Court explained that the exception applies to someone with a leadership role “distinct from that of most of [the organization’s] members,” someone in whom “[t]he members of a religious group put their faith,” or someone who “personif[ies]” the organization’s “beliefs” and “guide[s] it on its way.”…

Hosanna-Tabor’s well-rounded approach ensured that a church could not categorically disregard generally applicable antidiscrimination laws for nonreligious reasons. By analyzing objective and easily discernable markers like titles, training, and public-facing conduct, Hosanna-Tabor charted a way to separate leaders who “personify” a church’s “beliefs” or who “minister to the faithful” from individuals who may simply relay religious tenets.  This balanced First Amendment concerns of state-church entanglement while avoiding an overbroad carve-out from employment protections….

Only by rewriting Hosanna-Tabor does the Court reach a different result. The Court…recasts Hosanna-Tabor itself:  “What matters,” the Court [says], “is what an employee does.”

But this vague statement…does not sound like a legal framework.  Rather, the Court insists that a “religious institution’s explanation of the role of [its] employees in the life of the religion in question is important.” (Thomas, J., concurring).  But because the Court’s new standard prizes a functional importance that it appears to deem churches in the best position to explain, one cannot help but conclude that the Court has just traded legal analysis for a rubber stamp.

…Although today’s decision is limited to certain “teachers of religion,” its reasoning risks rendering almost every Catholic parishioner and parent in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles a Catholic minister.  That is, the Court’s apparent deference here threatens to make nearly anyone whom the schools might hire “ministers” unprotected from discrimination in the hiring process. That cannot be right. Although certain religious functions may be important to a church, a person’s performance of some of those functions does not mechanically trigger a categorical exemption from generally applicable antidiscrimination laws.

Today’s decision thus invites the “potential for abuse”….It risks allowing employers to decide for themselves whether discrimination is actionable.  Indeed, today’s decision reframes the ministerial exception as broadly as it can, without regard to the statutory exceptions tailored to protect religious practice.  As a result, the Court absolves religious institutions of any animus completely irrelevant to their religious beliefs or practices and all but forbids courts to inquire further about whether the employee is in fact a leader of the religion….

*  *  *

In expanding the ministerial exception far beyond its historic narrowness, the Court overrides Congress’ carefully tailored exceptions for religious employers.  Little if nothing appears left of the statutory exemptions after today’s constitutional broadside.  So long as the employer determines that an employee’s “duties” are “vital” to “carrying out the mission of the church,” then today’s laissez-faire analysis appears to allow that employer to make employment decisions because of a person’s skin color, age, disability, sex, or any other protected trait for reasons having nothing to do with religion.

This sweeping result is profoundly unfair. …The inherent injustice in the Court’s conclusion will be impossible to ignore for long, particularly in a pluralistic society like ours. One must hope that a decision deft enough to remold Hosanna-Tabor to fit the result reached today reflects the Court’s capacity to cabin the consequences tomorrow.

I respectfully dissent.