St. James Catholic School v. Biel
In its 2012 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor, the U.S. Supreme Court protected the right of religious groups to choose those who teach the faith to the next generation, free from government interference. This includes schools like St. James Catholic School, a K-8 school in Torrance, California, dedicated to educating students while developing their life in the Roman Catholic faith. As the only fifth grade teacher at St. James, Kristen Biel was her students’ primary educator in Catholicism. But in 2015, the school chose not to renew Ms. Biel’s one-year contract based on classroom performance, and she sued the school.
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A Catholic parish school since 1918
St. James Catholic School is a K-8 school in Torrance, California, dedicated to educating students while developing their life in the Roman Catholic faith. It is the parish school for St. James Roman Catholic Church. Since its founding in 1918, the school has lived out the parish’s motto “to continue the praise of God.” Parents choose St. James because they know their children will receive a quality academic education rooted in the Catholic faith and infused with Catholic teaching and practice.
As the only fifth-grade teacher at St. James Catholic School, Ms. Biel was the person charged with promoting, teaching, and fostering Catholic identity in the fifth graders at St. James. She carried out this mission by teaching a religion class on the Catholic faith each week; leading students in prayer daily, including the Our Father and Hail Mary prayers; taking them to and supervising them during Mass; and infusing the entire curriculum with the Catholic faith and values. After the school found Ms. Biel’s classroom performance to be below the school’s standards, they worked with her for months to improve. When she did not show signs of improvement, the school decided not to renew her one-year contract.
Ninth Circuit defies U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous Hosanna-Tabor decision
In 2015, Ms. Biel sued St. James School in federal district court. In January 2017, the district court ruled for St. James based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor case. In Hosanna-Tabor, the U.S. Supreme Court protected the First Amendment right of a Lutheran school to choose who teaches the faith to the next generation, free from government interference. The Supreme Court decision recognized that religious groups can only operate freely if they are given full autonomy in choosing the individuals who teach their beliefs and embody their faith.
Ms. Biel appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. On December 17, 2018, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling. The Ninth Circuit ruling contradicts Supreme Court precedent, claiming that though Ms. Biel had the same important religious role as the Lutheran teacher in Hosanna Tabor, St. James Catholic School did not have the same right as a Lutheran school to choose who teaches their faith.
On January 22, 2019, Becket filed its en banc petition for the full Ninth Circuit Court to hear the case on behalf of St. James. On June 25, 2019, the Ninth Circuit denied en banc review. Nine judges joined a dissenting opinion authored by Judge Nelson. In the opinion, the dissenting judges stated that the Ninth Circuit is exhibiting “the very hostility toward religion our Founders prohibited and the Supreme Court has repeatedly instructed us to avoid.”
On September 16, 2019, Becket asked the Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision and defend the right of St. James School to choose the teachers best able to pass on its faith teachings to the next generation. On December 18, 2019 the Supreme Court agreed to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision in St. James School, and consolidated the case with a similar Becket case, Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru. The Court heard oral argument on May 11, 2020. Also representing St. James Catholic School were Jack Sholkoff of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. and Margaret Graf of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
On July 8, 2020 the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. James Catholic schools, finding that the government cannot control a church school’s decision about who teaches its religion classes.
Importance to religious liberty
- Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Religious institutions should be fully empowered to select their priests, rabbis, ministers and other religious teachers. The Supreme Court has acknowledged that right and all courts should respect that decision. Both church and state benefit when the state is not evaluating the internal decisions of a religious ministry.