Sectarian Versus Secular Civil Rights: Supreme Court Permits Church Employers Latitude in Defining Employee Roles and Rights

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267 (July 8, 2020); St. James’ School v. Biel, No. 19-348 (July 8, 2020).


In this challenge to churches’ capacity to determine their own rules of employment, Justice Alito wrote for the Court’s majority; Justices Thomas and Gorsuch wrote separately in concurrence; and Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented.


Teachers at the religious schools in the cases now before the Court have responsibilities similar to those described in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 565 U.S. 171 (2012).   These teachers do not, however, have titles associated with professed religious persons or functions.

Mid-twentieth century precedent established that religious institutions have the capacity to decide matters of church governance without state interference.  Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in North America, 344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952).

Here, one elementary school teacher who taught all subjects, including religion, complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) that the school administration’s determination to change her to part-time status was age discrimination.  The other plaintiff claimed discrimination in discharge because of her need for breast cancer treatment.  Both responding employers stated that their decisions were bawsed on employee performance.

The question is how the principles of independence constitutionally assured in church governance apply to church autonomy in employment decisions, in which churches enjoy a “ministerial exception” to otherwise applicable laws for religious positions.  An individual’s role in conveying the church’s mission and the trust conferred on that individual are significant, but the title “minister” in itself will not require exemption nor is it necessary to confer exemption.  Where both teachers in these cases were entrusted with performance of religious duties, the ministerial exception appropriately applies. The determination whether the exception applies cannot be made by rote review of titles and checklists as ultimately a court, unschooled and unskilled in religious matters, must look to what an individual does, not what he or she is called.

The hiring exemption permitting churches to prefer members of their religion in hiring decisions is of a different character than the ministerial exception, and the principle applicable there do not need to be imported to the ministerial exemption.  Judicial inquiry into who is a member of a faith and who is not would impermissibly intrude on a church’s definition of participation.

A rigid formula for characterizing employment as religious is inapt.  “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 teachers threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”  (Slip Op. at 26-27.)

Justices Thomas and Gorsuch concur.  Justice Thomas asserts that courts must defer to church determinations of what is ministerial, as this is inherently a theological question that cannot be answered by civil law.

Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissent.  The dissenting justices point to the predominantly secular functions performed by the teachers in these cases, their lack of religious training, and the absence of any religious requirement attaching to their positions.  Employers are required to conform to generally applicable laws and Congress has created exemptions where appropriate.  The ministerial exception is judge made law.  Because of its sweep, which would permit religious animus, the exception must be narrow, as it is subject to abuse.  It is to be preferred to make constitutional determinations on a case by case, holistic, basis.  The “functional status” analysis adopted here, focused on what an employee does, rewrites Hosanna-Tabor, making a two justice concurrence in that case into the prevailing opinion.

Where the civil rights of thousands of employees in religious organizations are in issues, analytical vagueness and deference to religious entities determinations invites abuse, permitting religious bodies to determine for themselves what the law is ad absolving the institutions of responsibility for religious animus.  Justice Sotomayor’s application of Hosanna-Tabor would lead to a conclusion contrary to that of the majority.  Biel was a teacher who participated in religious functions with a half day’s training in religious pedagogy. Morrissey-Berru taught various subjects and taught religious matters from a workbook chosen by the church.

Neither plaintiff ought to have bee barred from asserting claims based on a ministerial exception.  Neither was a minister, neither was trained as such, neither had a leadership role in the faith community, and both function predominantly as academic teachers. Depriving them of civil rights based o a small amount of time engaged in religious activity is harsh, especially where no religious reason was proffered for the churches’ acts concerning plaintiffs’ employment.

Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267 July 8, 2020

 

Suitable Accommodations Must Await Another Day: Supreme Court Declines Review of Walgreen Employee’s Religious Discrimination Claim

Patterson v. Walgreen, No. 18-349, 549 U.S. ____ (cert. denied February 24, 2020).


A decades-old Supreme Court case offhandedly announced that the “undue burden” that would relieve employers of any obligation to accommodate an employee’s religion need only be more than de minimus.  Joining in denial of certiorari of an employee’s case against Walgreen, Justices Alito and Thomas would like to revisit the standing precept, particularly where the old decision relied not on the civil rights statute but on federal agency guidance which predated statutory refinements of the definition of ‘religion’.

 

The Solicitor General suggested that other issues are of concern that need review, but the Court does not consider this case to be the proper vehicle.  The Solicitor General has asked whether an employer must offer a partial accommodation where a full accommodation would pose an undue hardship, or whether speculative harm can establish undue harm.  

 

Patterson alleged that Walgreen’s discriminated against him because his religion forbade working on his sabbath.  Walgreen’s routinely accommodated him in scheduling his work but declined to do so when an urgent need arose and it was thought that  accommodation would work an unairmness to another employee.

 

Patterson failed to appear for the requested Saturday work, which precipitated a delay in training Walgreen employees.  Discussion with Patterson was not fruitful. Patterson wanted a guarantee that he would never be asked to work on his sabbath.  He declined consideration of other positions where the issue would not arise. Walgreen’s suspended and later terminated Patterson.

 

The 11th Circuit observed that Patterson had established a prima facie case, leaving for decision on whether Walgreen failed to offer a reasonable accommodation or that Walgreen’s could not offer a reasonable accommodation which would not pose an undue hardship, which hardship can embrace both direct and indirect costs.  

 

An accommodation need not be the one requested by an employee, nor need the employer offer an array of accommodations from which to choose.  The duty to accommodate his match by a countervailing duty on the employee’s part to work with the employers as the employer suggests.

 

The 11th Circuit declined to address in depth the issue of undue hardwhip because Walgrehaten’s had offered Patterson the opportunity to change schedules when practicable or to obtain another position.  Even if undue hardship were considered, however, Patterson would not prevail because Walgreens would have incurred undue hardship had it been forced to rearrange its business schedule and that of other employees’ to accommodate Patterson.

 

The 11th Circuit also affirmed the trial court’s rejection of Patterson’s retaliation claim.  It cannot be said, the appellate court observed, that Patterson’s termination subsequent to his rejection of all reasonable accommodations was retaliatory.  An employee cannot both reject proffered reasonable accommodations and then claim retaliatory termination.  

 

Although the case will not be heard by the Supreme Court, the opinion accompanying denial of certiorari establishes that at least some of the associate justices are not at ease with the low standard that applies to employers concerning religious accommodations nor are they pleased with the continued existence of outdated definitions of religion.  The denial of certiorari means that the 11th Circuit’s view that an employee must cooperate with an employer concerning accommodations stands. As the 11th Circuit sees it, an employee seeking a religious accommodation cannot insist on the employee’s choice of accommodation, nor can the employee complain of retaliation where reasonable accommodations were offered and the employee rejected them.  

 

JustLawful prognostication:  This case was continued on conference lists for nearly a year, indicating its significance to the Court was not insubstantial but, as the concurring justices noted, the case did not present squarely the open issues that ought, in their views, to be addressed.   With the opinion below undisturbed, the balance of power in employer – employee relations in religious accommodations, at least in the 11th Circuit, rests with the employer. An employer may terminate an employee who refuses a reasonable accommodation, and may demonstrate that accommodation presents an ‘undue burden’ by offering only that the accommodation would cause more than slight harm.  

These issues will not diminish but only expand as the nation moves toward embracing a more expansive notion of religion and religious observances, and as the population of the United States grows ever more diverse in its demographics and in its religious practices.  The push and pull of employer and employee needs will likely not abate any time soon, making the hope for an apt case to serve as a vehicle to review will be presented sooner rather than later. Of course, there is nothing that stands in the way of legislative correction or executive and/or administrative refinement, perhaps obviating judicial intervention, should the coordinate branches’ respective spirits be so inclined.

 

Patterson v. Walgreen 18-349_7j70 February 24, 2020

Patterson v. Walgreen 11th Cir. March 9 2018

Wrongful Termination Case Cannot Proceed in Federal Court Where No First Amendment Rights Attach to Private Employment Disputes and Defense Cannot Confer Jurisdiction Otherwise Lacking

Cox v. Bishop England High School, et al., No. 2:19-cv-002202 (D. S.C.) September 17 2019.


A First Amendment claim regarding wrongful termination is insufficient to confer federal jurisdiction over the case, as Congress has not extended First Amendment protections to private workplaces.  Under the well-pleaded complaint rule, the assertion of defenses grounded in federal constitutional law will not, without more,transform a state law complaint into a federal one.

Cox v. Bishop England High Sch. (D. S.C., 2019)