Grussgott v. Milwaukee Jewish Day School, Inc.
A former teacher of Hebrew and Jewish studies sued a Wisconsin Jewish Day School in 2016 for unlawful termination. Becket filed an amicus brief in support of the school, explaining that religious organizations must be free to choose their own religious leaders—and that, as applied here, the school was a religious institution and the teacher was a religious leader. In February 2018, the Seventh Circuit ruled in the school’s favor, bolstering the precedent set in Becket’s 2012 Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor.
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The Milwaukee Jewish Day School welcomes a broad diversity of Jewish students from the surrounding community. The school’s basic Jewish beliefs are broadly incorporated into its curriculum, with students attending daily prayer, studying Hebrew, observing Jewish holidays and the Sabbath, and studying the Torah. The Jewish faith drives the school’s mission, and the school’s teachers are an integral part of accomplishing that mission.
But one former teacher claimed the school is not “Jewish enough” to qualify for First Amendment protection from government meddling in the school’s internal religious decisions. That protection—known as the “ministerial exception” is the requirement that the government stay out of religious groups’ selection of their own religious leaders. (For a more detailed explanation, see this video.) The teacher taught Hebrew and Jewish studies, taught directly from the Torah, and led the students in daily regular prayer—but she claimed she was not a religious leader or part of the school’s religious mission.
In September 2016, the former teacher sued the school in a Wisconsin federal district court, claiming she had been unlawfully terminated. The court rightly rejected her arguments and ruled that a teacher like her, who regularly led prayer and taught religious studies, qualifies as a minister under the First Amendment’s ministerial exception—and that the school has the right to choose its own religious leaders. Displeased with the court’s decision, the teacher appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in October 2017, urging the Seventh Circuit to protect religious schools of all faiths from government interference. In February 2018, the Seventh Circuit ruled in the school’s favor, adopting Becket’s position that the school was without question a religious institution protected by the ministerial exception. And as Becket further pointed out, the Court’s opinion concluded that the plaintiff’s “role as a teacher of [ ] faith to the next generation outweighed other considerations” and showed that she was covered by the ministerial exception. Becket’s amicus brief called for this result, emphasizing that the ministerial exception applied because the plaintiff’s “role required her to perform important religious functions for the school,” particularly because she “taught the tenets of the faith to the next generation.” In November 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal, leaving the decision in favor of the school in place.
The Seventh Circuit’s opinion in favor of Milwaukee Jewish Day School is significant, because it marks the first time that the Seventh Circuit has defined and confirmed the scope of ministerial exception since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 9-0 decision in Hosanna-Tabor, where Becket defended a Lutheran church school’s right to choose its own teachers.
The school was represented by Kravit, Hovel & Krawczyk (Aaron Aizenberg).
Importance to religious liberty
- Freedom of religious groups to choose their own leaders: Becket’s 2012 Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor set a precedent on this issue for churches.
- Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Both church and state are better off when the state isn’t meddling in the internal religious affairs of a religious ministry.