In an important legal decision at the intersection of worker rights and religious freedom, the Supreme Court has ruled that Catholic school teachers are not protected from employment discrimination due to age or disability, because the first amendment forbids the US government from interfering in religious institutions.
The decision addressed two cases at different schools in the Los Angeles area. The late Kristen Biel, a teacher at St. James School was let go after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Agnes Morrissey-Berru, a teacher at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, sued for age discrimination after her contract was not renewed. A 7-2 majority of the court ruled that both teachers qualified for the “ministerial exemption” from discrimination laws because religious instruction is among their duties.
These are difficult cases. The USCCB understandably hailed the ruling as a vindication of religious freedom principles, but it’s unfortunate their statement didn’t acknowledge the rights of workers in any fashion at all. The legal right of Catholic institutions to discriminate according to age or disability may be an undesired consequence of a zealous defense of religious freedom, but it should temper our celebration of the outcome. Although I can’t speak to the merits of either teacher’s claim, all of us should be wary of a system that makes the employer judge in his own cause, as this decision does.
The Bishop’s 1986 Pastoral Letter Economic Justice for All includes a section on “The Church as Economic Actor” with specific reference to the Church’s practices as an employer. The Bishops observe that “All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the Church and its agencies and institutions; indeed the Church should be exemplary .”
The current situation is far from exemplary. The Bishops state that Church employees have the right to organize in unions , but employers such as St. Xavier University in Chicago bust faculty unions at will. The Bishops oppose discrimination in employment, but those with a claim of discrimination have no place to turn for a fair hearing. If we are to reconcile our religious freedom with our social doctrine, it is beyond time for the Church to establish a bill of rights for employees of Catholic institutions and a forum where those whose rights have been violated can press their claims.