Author: Leslie Griffin

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Reviewing The Oral Argument in Hosanna-Tabor (Part Three)

JUSTICE SCALIA: Let’s assume that a Catholic priest is removed from his duties because he married, okay? And, and he claims: No, that’s not the real reason; the real reason is because I threatened to sue the church. Okay? So that reason is just pretextual. Would you allow the government to go into the dismissal of the Catholic priest to see whether indeed it was pretextual?

Assistant Solicitor General Leondra Kruger answered no, apparently because a priest’s employment relationship with his church cannot be outweighed by any government interest. Kruger should have said yes.

Kruger correctly said yes later in the argument when pressed by Justice Samuel Alito about the case of a nun, a canon law professor, who alleged gender discrimination in her denial of tenure. Alito suggested that the case inevitably involved the courts in theological doctrines of canon law. Kruger disagreed:

If on the other hand the plaintiff has evidence that no one ever raised any objections to the quality of her scholarship, but they raised objections to women serving in certain roles in the school, and those roles were not ones that were required to be filled by persons of a particular gender, consistent with religious beliefs, then that’s a case in which a judge can instruct a jury that its job is not to inquire as to the validity of the subjective judgment, just as juries are often instructed that their job is not to determine whether an employer’s business judgment was fair or correct, but only whether the employer was motivated by discrimination or retaliation.

Kruger’s two answers illustrate the confusion about pretext that has bedeviled lawsuits involving employees of religious organizations.

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Reviewing The Oral Argument in Hosanna-Tabor (Part Two)

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC is the first ministerial exception case to make it to the Supreme Court, even though the Fifth Circuit first recognized the exception in 1972. The ministerial exception is a court-created doctrine that requires the dismissal of lawsuits by ministerial employees against religious organizations. At last Wednesday’s oral argument in Hosanna-Tabor, Justice Samuel Alito asked the church’s lawyer, University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock, how the exception has worked since its inception.

Justice Alito’s question arose soon after Justice Sonia Sotomayor had asked Laycock whether the ministerial exception should apply to “a teacher who reports sexual abuse to the government and is fired because of that reporting.” Justice Sotomayor’s question was probably based on Weishuhn v. Catholic Diocese of Lansing, which has a cert. petition pending before the Court. Weishuhn, a teacher at a Catholic elementary school, alleged violations of the Michigan Civil Rights Act and Whistleblowers’ Protection Act in being fired because she reported possible sexual abuse of a student’s friend to the authorities without first informing her principal. Justice Alito asked if there have been “a great many cases, a significant number of cases, involving the kinds of things that Justice Sotomayor is certainly rightly concerned about, instances in which ministers have been fired for reporting criminal violations and that sort of thing?”

Laycock gave a confusing answer by suggesting that Weishuhn would lose her case on the facts. He said there is a “cert. petition pending [undoubtedly Weishuhn] in which a teacher with a long series of problems in her school called the police about an allegation of sexual abuse that did not happen at the school, did not involve a student of the school, did not involve a parent at the school, someplace else; and — and called the police and had them come interview a student without any communication with — with her principal. And the Respondents tried to spin that as a case of discharge for reporting sexual abuse. But if you look at the facts it’s really quite different.”

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Reviewing the Oral Argument in Hosanna-Tabor (Part One)

Lost in the muddled oral argument of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v EEOC was the case’s central question: Are religious groups entitled to disobey the law?

The contested issue in Hosanna-Tabor is whether Lutheran elementary schoolteacher Cheryl Perich can sue her former employer, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, for retaliation under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The school fired Perich after she threatened to report the school’s disabilities discrimination against her to the EEOC. The specific legal question is whether the ministerial exception, a court-created doctrine that holds that the First Amendment requires the dismissal of many employment discrimination cases against religious employers, applies to schoolteacher Perich because the church considers her to be a minister.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor identified the important legal issue early in the oral argument when she asked the church’s lawyer, University of Virginia Professor Douglas Laycock, “doesn’t society have a right at some point to say certain conduct is unacceptable, even if religious?” That is what the ministerial exception is all about: at what point do religious organizations have to obey the law?

Justice Sotomayor was concerned about “a church whose religious beliefs centered around sexually exploiting women and children,” which Laycock did not defend. But how can courts determine which laws must be obeyed and which may be flouted? In the past, lower courts have held that Baptist churches’ religious, Scripture-based belief that men are heads of households and therefore entitled to higher pay than women did not allow them to violate the equal pay laws; that the Shiloh True Light Church of Christ’s religious belief in children’s vocational training did not permit it to violate the child labor laws; and that the Quaker tradition of hospitality to the stranger did not allow Quakers to ignore the alien worker requirements of the immigration laws. Those cases focused on how strong the government’s interest was in enforcing the laws. The courts concluded that the government’s interest in enforcing the equal pay, child labor and immigration laws was strong enough to overcome important religious beliefs.

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