The U.S. Supreme Court has taken up an appeal on a case with significant implications in the realm of religious freedom.
The high court will soon consider whether the government should have a say in who is hired as a religious instructor in Catholic schools, WND reported.
A big case with big implications
The case comes out of California and was previously heard by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld rulings against two Catholic schools. Our Lady of Guadalupe School and St. James Catholic School were sued by two teachers after their contracts were not renewed. In essence, the state and the courts were attempting to force the schools to rehire the two teachers who had been let go.
Both schools are being represented by the non-profit Becket legal group, which focuses on religious liberty issues. In the words of the law firm, the case comes down to “whether the government can control who a church school chooses to teach its religion classes.”
Interestingly, there is already Supreme Court precedent in the school’s favor; in the 2012 case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the high court unanimously “protected the First Amendment right of a Lutheran school to choose who teaches the faith to the next generation, free from government interference,” the firm reported. The Ninth Circuit, however, has chosen to ignore that precedent with regard to the two Catholic schools.
According to the Becket group, Hosanna-Tabor established the “ministerial exception,” which allows religious schools to choose their own “ministerial” employees — “those employees who perform important religious functions, like instructing young children in the precepts of the Catholic faith.”
“Parents trust Catholic schools to assist them in one of their most important duties: forming the faith of their children,” explained Montserrat Alvarado, vice president and executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
He went on: “If courts can second-guess a Catholic school’s judgment about who should teach religious beliefs to fifth graders, then neither Catholics nor any other religious group can be confident in their ability to convey the faith to the next generation.”
A school’s judgment
In the case soon to be taken up by the Supreme Court, both of the teachers taught religion classes, wove Catholicism into all other subjects, and joined the students in daily prayer and religious services. The two teachers, whose contracts were not renewed following poor performance reviews, quite obviously had “significant religious responsibilities,” but the Ninth Circuit’s majority ignored the religious aspect of their work and deemed them akin to normal teachers.
Of course, it should be noted that a strong minority on the Ninth Circuit issued a dissent criticizing the ruling for showing “hostility toward religion” and being a danger to the First Amendment.
Agreeing with the minority, at least seven other circuit courts have ruled in favor of religious schools in similar cases, making it important for the Supreme Court to step in and settle the disparate interpretation of the Ninth Circuit.
“Do we really want judges, juries, or bureaucrats deciding who ought to teach Catholicism at a parish school, or Judaism at a Jewish day school? Of course not,” Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel for Becket, said. “Religion teachers play a vital role in the ecosystem of faith. We are confident that the Supreme Court will recognize that under our Constitution government officials cannot control who teaches kids what to believe.”