Court upholds Seminary’s freedom to train faith leaders

WASHINGTON – In a landmark decision with nationwide impact, a federal judge ruled that a seminary has the right to train students for ministry according to its sincere religious beliefs, free from government entanglement. Yesterday, in Maxon v. Fuller Theological Seminary, the Central District of California blocked claims by two individuals who sued Fuller Theological Seminary, arguing that federal law made it illegal for the seminary to dismiss them from its School of Theology for violating its religious standards. Becket is defending the seminary, arguing that the government cannot control how religious schools train future ministers and other religious leaders.

When students apply to Fuller Theological Seminary, they agree to faithfully follow the seminary’s religious standards throughout their training for ministry and other religious service. Like all their peers, the plaintiffs made that agreement. But after the seminary learned that the plaintiffs had violated the standards, the seminary regretfully dismissed them and refunded their costs for the classes they were unable to complete. The plaintiffs then sued.

The judge dismissed the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, explaining: “It is well established . . . that courts should refrain from trolling through a person’s or institutions religious beliefs.”

“This is a huge win for seminaries, yeshivas, madrasas, and every other religious institution of higher education,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior attorney at Becket. “That’s because houses of worship, and not government officials, should be deciding how to teach the next generation of religious leaders.”

Fuller Theological Seminary is one of the world’s leading Christian educational institutions. It is a multidenominational, international, and multiethnic seminary committed to training global Christian leaders for the fulfillment of their religious callings. Each student who graduates from the seminary is prepared to be a leader in the faith and to practice and teach the gospel to their diverse communities.

As a religious educational institution, the seminary has the First Amendment right to uphold specific standards of faith and morality for the members of its Christian community. Federal civil rights law has affirmatively protected this fundamental constitutional right for decades. Until now, no court had ever been required to apply those laws to protect a seminary. Fuller’s win helps protect religious schools nationwide.

“Personal persuasion, not government coercion, is how the First Amendment allows citizens to engage with religious beliefs they don’t like,” said Blomberg. “This lawsuit threatened to impose a government straitjacket on all Americans, and it’s good for everyone that the court said no.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish

Walking with the Church

St. Andrew the Apostle Parish has been serving a Polish immigrant neighborhood in the city of Chicago for over 120 years. As part of the Archdiocese of Chicago, St. Andrew Parish is dedicated to ministering to all Catholics, including LGBTQ Catholics seeking to walk with the Church.

For over 25 years, the Archdiocesan Gay and Lesbian Outreach (AGLO) has been a community of accompaniment that seeks to meet LGBTQ people where they are. During the AIDS epidemic, AGLO worked closely with the Catholic Charities HIV/AIDS ministries and generously contributed its time, money, and prayer to help the afflicted and offer them hope in the face of a terrible disease. Today, AGLO offers weekly Mass and Sacraments, retreats and days of reflection, and prayer and discussion groups to help LGBTQ Catholics find a place of pastoral outreach in the Church.

Violating Church Teachings

Sandor Demkovich was hired by St. Andrew Parish in 2012. During his time with St. Andrew, Mr. Demkovich served as music director, choir director and organist. These positions are important roles within the religious life of the parish. As music director, Mr. Demkovich shared the Catholic faith with members of the parish through music—he helped select scripturally appropriate music for Masses and other important sacraments, played the organ during services, and helped lead the congregation in singing hymns.

As a minister of the faith and a representative of the parish, Mr. Demkovich was responsible for upholding the teachings of the faith in word and action. But in 2014, after working at the parish for two years, the parish was required to end Mr. Demkovich’s participation in its ministry because he entered into a same-sex marriage in violation of his agreement to bear witness to and promote the Church’s 2,000-year-old teachings, including those on marriage.

Ignoring the ministerial exception

In December 2016, Mr. Demkovich sued St. Andrew Parish and the Archdiocese of Chicago, claiming that he had been discriminated against because of his sexual orientation and subjected to a hostile work environment.

The district court allowed some of Mr. Demkovich’s claims against the Archdiocese to proceed, even though Mr. Demkovich admitted that the religious importance of his position at the parish made him a minister. In August 2020, a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit also ruled against the Archdiocese. The ruling conflicts previous Seventh Circuit decisions, with rulings of other federal circuits, and with the Supreme Court’s just-issued decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, in which the Supreme Court affirmed the right of churches to select and supervise their leaders and ministers free from government interference.

Becket represents the Archdiocese of Chicago at the Seventh Circuit, where the Archdiocese is requesting a rehearing before all 11 of the Seventh Circuit’s judges. Becket is arguing that religious organizations must be free to select and control their own ministers of the faith without government interference.

The Archdiocese of Chicago is also represented by its general counsel, Jim Geoly, and by Alex Marks at Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, P.C.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

Supreme Court rejects government control over religion teachers

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of two California Catholic schools today, finding that the government cannot control a church school’s decision about who teaches its religion classes. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty defended two Catholic elementary schools that chose not to renew the contracts of two fifth-grade teachers who were not effectively carrying out the schools’ missions. Becket argued that both Church and State are better off when the government doesn’t entangle itself in the internal religious decisions of religious groups about who best teaches the faith to the next generation.

Justice Alito wrote for the Court that for religious schools, “educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission.” He also wrote about the “the rich diversity of religious education in this country,” citing examples of schools from many different religious traditions. The Court also cited “the close connection that religious institutions draw between their central purpose and educating the young in the faith.”

“Religious schools play an integral role in passing the faith to the next generation of believers,” said Adrian Alarcon, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Catholic Schools. “We are grateful that the Supreme Court recognized faith groups must be free to make their own decisions about who should be entrusted with these essential duties.

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel involve two fifth-grade teachers who taught in-depth classes on the Catholic faith to their students for several hours each week, integrated Catholic values into every other subject, prayed with their students daily, and accompanied them to Mass and other religious services. The schools chose not to renew the teachers’ contracts due to poor performance, which ranged from failure to follow basic educational expectations to chaotic classrooms with children crawling on the floor. But the teachers sued, and lower courts ruled that government officials could be permitted to second-guess the schools’ decision about whether these teachers could effectively teach the Catholic faith to their students. Numerous judges, scholars, and faith groups warned these rulings violated fundamental civil rights for religious communities, especially minority groups.

The Supreme Court’s decision built on its previous unanimous decision in Becket’s 2012 case, Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, confirming that the First Amendment protects all teachers who teach religion devotionally to their students. The decision recognizes that many denominations rely on non-ordained employees to pass the faith to the next generation and rejects formalistic requirements—like having a religious-sounding title—which create obstacles to the vital protections afforded by the First Amendment. A broad and flexible approach is especially important to minority religious groups, who often must partner with people from other faith backgrounds to operate their religious schools. A recent survey confirmed that Americans overwhelmingly support letting religious groups select their own religion teachers and reject government entanglement in such important decisions.

“Today is a huge win for religious schools of all faith traditions,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, who argued the case to the Court. “The last thing government officials should do is decide who is authorized to teach Catholicism to Catholics or Judaism to Jews. We are glad the Court has resoundingly reaffirmed that churches and synagogues, not government, control who teaches kids about God.”

What:
Press Call to discuss Supreme Court’s opinions in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel, and Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania

Who:
Mark Rienzi, president at Becket (Available for interviews)
Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket (Available for interviews)

When:
Today at 11:30 a.m. EDT/8:30 a.m. PDT

Press Call Information:
301-715-8592  | Pin #: 914-118-5568 | or join http://zoom.us/my/comms.line.external

 Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, or Spanish.

New survey finds widespread support for letting Church, not State, control internal religious direction

WASHINGTON– In a new survey of a nationally representative sample of American adults, respondents showed an intuitive understanding of and support for the First Amendment principles that protect a religious organization’s ability to determine its own religious mission and beliefs, including by selecting those who pass its faith to the next generation. The survey especially focused on this ability to pass on the faith to the next generation free from government interference, a protection often referred to as the “ministerial exception.” Respondents were tested on their understanding of these constitutional protections, and surveyed on how they think they should be applied.

The survey, fielded in late April, found that more than two-thirds of respondents agreed that keeping the government out of a religious organization’s internal religious disputes is an important facet of a healthy separation of church and state. A majority of respondents also said that the religious organization should have the final say when a dispute arises over who can or cannot teach its beliefs to the next generation. In fact, more respondents chose this option than all other options combined.

“When it comes to important decisions about who can pass on a religious organization’s faith on to the next generation, Americans agree that the buck stops well before Uncle Sam,” said Montse Alvarado, executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “Leaving important decisions about a religion’s future in that religion’s hands is a commonsense application of the First Amendment.”

Although the term “ministerial exception” may not be as familiar as other First Amendment freedoms, on a section of the survey that tested respondents’ knowledge of the status of this constitutional protection, Americans typically answered at least three out of four questions correctly.  Older generations performed slightly better than younger generations. Education level was not a predictor of accuracy in these questions, nor was political party or the self-reported importance of religion.

This survey and others to follow serve as a companion to Becket’s annual Religious Freedom Index. Where the Index provides a macro view of religious freedom sentiment, this survey provides a more detailed view of principles covered in the Index that are central to current religious freedom cases.

The study surveyed a representative sample of n=1,004 American adults from April 20-22. Weighting was used to ensure a representative population with regard to age, gender, race, geographic region, and education. The survey was conducted online and has an estimated margin of error of +/-3.1 percent at 95 percent confidence.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Supreme Court hears major Church-State case

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court heard oral argument today in a case that will determine if the government can control who a church school chooses to teach its religion classes. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and in St. James Catholic School v. Biel, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is defending two California Catholic elementary schools that chose not to renew the contracts of two fifth-grade teachers who were not effectively carrying out the schools’ missions. Becket argued that the government has no place entangling itself in the internal religious decisions of religious groups about who best teaches the faith to the next generation.

A number of the Justices’ questions focused on the Court’s landmark 2012 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, in which the Court ruled unanimously in favor of a Lutheran school defended by Becket. A majority of the Justices expressed broad support for Becket’s argument that religious schools must be free to choose who teaches the faith to the next generation. By contrast, Justice Kagan expressed “surprise” that the plaintiffs’ lawyer thought the government could interfere even with the selection of full-time religion teachers.

“This is an important moment for our community of faith, especially our schools,” said Adrian Alarcon, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Catholic Schools. “We are defending our freedom to choose who may teach, inspire, and advance the faith at our Catholic schools, free from government interference.

The case concerns fifth-grade teachers who taught an in-depth class on the Catholic faith to their students for several hours each week, integrated Catholic values into every other subject, prayed with their students daily, and accompanied them to Mass and other religious services. Nevertheless, when the schools chose not to renew the teachers’ contracts because of classroom performance, the lower courts said that governments should be permitted to second-guess the decision.

At the Supreme Court, a broad coalition of minority-faith groups, leading law professors, members of Congress and state governments sided with the schools, advising the Court about the dangerous consequences of allowing the government to control who religious groups choose to teach the faith, and asking the Justices to uphold a common sense rule the Court protected unanimously in 2012.

“For any faith to continue, someone has to teach the faith to the next generation,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “And under our system of separation of church and state, the government cannot decide who carries out that crucial task. We are confident that the Court recognizes how important a role teachers play in the lives of their students, and will reaffirm its precedent that the government can’t control who teaches kids about God.”

Becket will host a press call at 1:45 p.m. ET. Audio from the press call can be found here.

Press call information:
646-876-9923 | Pin #: 930-944-5568 | or join http://zoom.us/my/comms.line.external 

Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, or Spanish.

Supreme Court to hear historic telephonic argument over religious schools’ right to select religion teachers

WASHINGTON  Two California Catholic elementary schools will be at the Supreme Court Monday, defending their right to pick religion teachers without interference from the governmentIn Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel, two fifth-grade teachers are suing their former employers after their annual contracts were not renewedAs fifth-grade teachers in Catholic elementary schoolsMs. Morrissey-Berru and Ms. Biel were both primary teachers of the Catholic faith for their studentsAfter concerns about the effectiveness of their teaching, observations of poor classroom management, and an unwillingness by the teachers to improve, both schools chose not to give the teachers new one-year contracts because they were not effectively carrying out the schools’ religious and educational mission. Becket argues that the government has no place interfering with the internal decisions of religious organizations about who best teaches the faith to the next generation.  

For the first time in Supreme Court history, the Court has decided to hear a handful of the previously postponed cases telephonically in the interest of safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the Our Lady and St. James cases on MondayMay 11The consolidated cases will be heard beginning at 11:00 a.m. EDT.   

What:
Oral Argument in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru & St. James Catholic School v. Biel 

Who:
Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket 

When:
Monday, May 11, 2020, 11:00 a.m. EDT 

Where:
The audio of the arguments will be accessible live via one of the C-SPAN TV networks, online via C-SPAN.org, and on the free C-SPAN Radio app 

Becket will host a press call at 1:45 p.m. EDT. 

Press Call-in:
646-876-9923 | Pin #: 930-944-5568 | or join http://zoom.us/my/comms.line.external
Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Maxon v. Fuller Theological Seminary

Training ministers of the gospel

As one of the world’s leading Christian seminaries, Fuller Theological Seminary offers a vibrant multidenominational, multiethnic, and international Christian community where Christian students prepare to fulfill their vocations in a variety of ministry settings. For over 70 years, Fuller Theological Seminary has equipped Christian ministers and faith leaders through rigorous academic programs rooted deeply in Christian teaching, to answer God’s call to lead their own communities in the way of Jesus.

When students apply to Fuller Theological Seminary, they agree to adhere to a wide swath of biblically based Christian ethics by giving written consent to abide by the seminary’s community standards as a continuing condition of enrollment. This collective agreement shapes the worldwide ethos of Fuller and includes upholding the belief that God created marriage to be the permanent covenant between only one man and one woman, and that sexual union must be reserved for that relationship. The seminary’s community standards are clear that students are to abstain from sexual conduct outside of this sacred marriage covenant.

The right to define ministry training

Joanna Maxon and Nathan Brittsan applied to Fuller Theological Seminary and agreed to Fuller’s community standards. Both individuals later admitted knowingly violating the standards by entering into same-sex marriages.

As with all students at Fuller, Ms. Maxon and Mr. Brittsan provided written consent to abide by the seminary’s community standards when they applied to the seminary, agreeing that they would follow them as a condition of participating in Fuller’s theological training with the rest of the student community. Their same-sex marriages were a direct and knowing violation of the standards to which they had agreed. Thus, after confirming the standards violations, Fuller regretfully dismissed them from the theology program and refunded their tuition for all classes that were left incomplete at the time of dismissal.

As a religious organization, Fuller Theological Seminary has the First Amendment right, and the religious duty, to uphold specific standards of ethics and morality for the members of its Christian community. This is a right that has been widely accepted and protected by courts for decades. Nevertheless, in November 2019, Ms. Maxon sued Fuller Theological Seminary in federal district court. Mr. Brittsan, who applied to Fuller but never matriculated, joined the lawsuit in January 2020.

Defending a healthy separation of church and state

Churches, seminaries, and other religious groups must be able to decide how to train their own religious leaders according to their own sincere determinations of their religious mission and the teachings of their faith. The government cannot entangle itself in these religious decisions by second-guessing or undermining how religious schools and organizations have decided to train their ministers and leaders. Permitting the government to force itself into the process of setting standards for scholars and ministers of faith is a clear violation of religious autonomy—a threat to the healthy separation of church and state.

The government cannot pressure religious groups into abandoning their beliefs. If Sikhs decide to abandon the turban and kirpan, Orthodox Jews choose to stop keeping Kosher, or Muslims want to reject wearing the hijab, then those must be decisions made freely by members of the faith—not under compulsion from lawsuits and courts. So too with Christian beliefs on the sacrament of marriage. Fuller filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ case in February 2020, and a hearing took place on August 4, 2020.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

Religious Communities—Religious groups must be able to select the members of their ministries according to their religious mission and sincere faith, free from government interference.
Freedom of groups to train their own leaders—The Supreme Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor unanimously protected a church’s right to choose and maintain standards for its own leaders. That principle applies to the training of religious leaders as well. Both church and state are best served when the state isn’t controlling the internal leadership decisions of a religious institution.

Supreme Court to decide if government can pick religion teachers

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed today to weigh in on whether the government can control who a church school chooses to teach its religion classes. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and in St. James Catholic School v. Biel, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is defending two California Catholic elementary schools’ right to choose ministers that embody their faith without government interference. After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against both schools and rejected the prevailing common-sense standard for allowing religious schools to choose their teachers, Becket appealed to the Supreme Court, which has now agreed to hear both cases.

In Hosanna-Tabor, a similar Becket case in 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the “ministerial exception” for a church school, a First Amendment right that allows religious schools to choose their own religion teachers. The ministerial exception protects all religious groups’ freedom to choose “ministerial” employees without interference from bureaucrats or courts. Most courts have ruled that ministerial employees are those employees who perform important religious functions, like instructing young children in the precepts of the Catholic faith. But in both Our Lady of Guadalupe School and St. James School, the Ninth Circuit rejected this widely accepted rule.

“Parents trust Catholic schools to assist them in one of their most important duties: forming the faith of their children,” said Montserrat Alvarado, vice president and executive director at Becket. “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.”

Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Biel played crucial roles in teaching the Catholic faith to their fifth-grade students. Both taught a religion class, integrated Catholic values into every subject they taught, joined their students in daily prayer, and accompanied students to Mass and other religious services. However, when each school decided not to renew the teachers’ contracts based on a history of poor performance, both teachers sued.

In December 2018, the Ninth Circuit ruled against St. James Catholic School. In April 2019, the court also ruled against Our Lady of Guadalupe School. Even though both teachers had significant religious responsibilities, the Ninth Circuit still decided that their work was not religious enough. Nine Ninth Circuit judges wrote a scathing dissent criticizing the rulings, and leading legal scholars and diverse religious groups condemned the rulings as dangerously wrong.

“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,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “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.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, or Spanish.

 

Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis

Commitment to Catholic education

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has been committed to learning, teaching, and sharing the Catholic faith in central and southern Indiana for over 175 years. In addition to providing tens of millions of dollars in vital social services, the Archdiocese operates a number of schools that provide a safe, high-quality education to thousands of low-income Indiana students. The results speak for themselves, with over 90% of all graduates going on to college, far outstripping public schools.

While Catholic schools provide a top-notch education, their central purpose is to transmit the Catholic faith to the next generation. Thus, it is crucial that educators in Catholic schools—especially administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors—respect and promote the Church’s teachings. For this reason, all educators at Roncalli sign an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives—serving as examples of the faith to both the students and the community alike.

A conflict of commitment

As Co-Director of Guidance at Roncalli High School, Lynn Starkey was responsible for communicating the Catholic faith to students and families, and advising students both practically and spiritually as they discerned their vocational path at and after Roncalli. In August of 2018, Starkey told Roncalli leadership that she was in, and intended to remain in, a same-sex marriage in violation of her contract and of Catholic teaching. When the time came to renew her contract, her fellow school leaders explained that they could not do so while she was living in opposition to Catholic teaching. Ms. Starkey sued both the school and the Archdiocese arguing that they had discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation.

Educating hearts and minds

Catholic education is designed to holistically form the student in heart, mind, and body. Accordingly, Catholic educators and guidance professionals are expected to go beyond simply teaching algebra, or helping students fill out college applications. They are charged with modeling a Christ-centered life and promoting the teachings of the Catholic Church in word and deed—in short, they are ministers of the faith to their students. If an educator chooses to live in a manner which demonstrates disagreement with Church teaching, that educator cannot properly communicate the faith to his or her students.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants church schools like Roncalli the right to choose who teaches the faith to the next generation, free from government interference. The U.S. Supreme Court most recently articulated this doctrine, called the ministerial exception, in the unanimous 2012 decision Hosanna-Tabor, which protected a Lutheran church school’s right to choose its teachers. Becket is defending the school’s First Amendment right to choose faithful teachers under the ministerial exception.

Next Steps

This case is currently in the Southern District of Indiana, where Roncalli and the Archdiocese are also represented by Jay Mercer of Fitzwater Mercer. Becket is arguing that both federal law and the First Amendment protect religious schools’ right to make hiring decisions based on shared religious doctrine.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious Communities— Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened. The First Amendment ensures a church’s right to self-definition and free association.

Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis

Commitment to Catholic education

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has been committed to learning, teaching, and sharing the Catholic faith in central and southern Indiana for over 175 years. In addition to providing tens of millions of dollars in vital social services, the Archdiocese operates a number of schools that provide a safe, high-quality education to thousands of low-income Indiana students. The results speak for themselves, with over 90% of all graduates going on to college, far outstripping public schools.

While Catholic schools provide a top-notch education, their central purpose is to transmit the Catholic faith to the next generation. Thus, it is crucial that educators in Catholic schools—especially administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors—respect and promote the Church’s teachings. For this reason, all educators at Roncalli sign an agreement to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives—serving as examples of the faith to both the students and the community alike.

A conflict of commitment

As Co-Director of Guidance at Roncalli High School, Shelly Fitzgerald was responsible for communicating the Catholic faith to students and families, and advising students both practically and spiritually as they discerned their vocational path at and after Roncalli. In August of 2018, Fitzgerald told Roncalli leadership that she was in, and intended to remain in, a same-sex marriage in violation of her contract and of Catholic teaching. When the time came to renew her contract, her fellow school leaders explained that they could not do so while she was living in opposition to Catholic teaching. Ms. Fitzgerald sued both the school and the Archdiocese, arguing that they had discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation.

Educating hearts and minds

Catholic education is designed to holistically form the student in heart, mind, and body. Accordingly, Catholic educators and guidance professionals are expected to go beyond simply teaching algebra, or helping students fill out college applications. They are charged with modeling a Christ-centered life and promoting the teachings of the Catholic Church in word and deed—in short, they are ministers of the faith to their students. If an educator chooses to live in a manner which demonstrates disagreement with Church teaching, that educator cannot properly communicate the faith to his or her students.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants church schools like Roncalli the right to choose who teaches the faith to the next generation, free from government interference, under a doctrine called the ministerial exception. The U.S. Supreme Court most recently articulated this doctrine in the unanimous 2012 decision Hosanna-Tabor, which protected a Lutheran church school’s right to choose its teachers. Here, Becket is defending the church’s First Amendment right to choose faithful teachers under the ministerial exception.

This case is currently in the Southern District of Indiana, where Roncalli and the Archdiocese are also represented by Jay Mercer of Fitzwater Mercer. Becket is arguing that both federal law and the First Amendment protect religious schools’ right to make hiring decisions based on shared religious doctrine.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Religious Communities— Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened. The First Amendment ensures a church’s right to self-definition and free association.

 

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru

Our Lady of Guadalupe fights for excellence 

Our Lady of Guadalupe School is a Transitional Kinder-8th grade Catholic school located in Hermosa Beach. A ministry of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, the school is committed to providing a faith-based education rooted in the Catholic tradition.  

In 2012, the school was struggling financially and on the verge of closing, with only one student in the graduating eighth grade class. In a bold turnaround effort, the school sought to improve by implementing a new reading and writing program to be taught by all teachers, a healthy diet program, and programs tailored for children with special needs.  

As a teacher at Our Lady of Guadalupe, Ms. Morrissey-Berru was responsible for providing a Catholic education, while implementing the school’s new programs, which were a top priority. However, Ms. Morrissey-Berru soon proved unwilling to follow the guidelines of any of the programs, and her students academic performance suffered as a result. Her recurring poor performance prompted complaints from fellow colleagues and parents.  Principal April Beuder decided to move Ms. Morrissey-Berru to a part-time teaching position, and in 2015 chose not to renew her contract. 

Catholic schools must be free to choose who teaches the faith 

As a Catholic school teacher, Ms. Morrissey-Berru held a crucial role of teaching the beliefs and mission of the Roman Catholic Church. She taught religion, led students in daily prayer, and prepared them for mass and other important liturgical activities such as feast days, Lenten services, and an annual performance of the Passion of the Christ. Every subject she taught was infused with Catholic values. The school also paid to have her trained as a certified Catechist. 

Under the ministerial exception, church schools like Our Lady of Guadalupe have the First Amendment right to choose who teaches the faith to the next generation, free from any government interference.

Morrissey-Berru sues Our Lady of Guadalupe 

After her contract term ended, Ms. Morrissey-Berru sued Our Lady of Guadalupe School for age discrimination. A federal judge sided with the school, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 unanimous Hosanna-Tabor decision protecting the First Amendment right of a Lutheran church school to choose its teachers. Ms. Morrissey-Berru then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  

In a two-page order, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed and sided with Ms. Morrissey-Berru. The panel recognized she had significant religious responsibilities,and was committed to incorporate Catholic values and teachings into her curriculum, yet, still ruled that Morrissey-Berru’s duties were not religious enough to invoke First Amendment protections. 

Nine other judges on the Ninth Circuit criticized the Morrissey-Berru panel’s decision in a dissenting opinion authored by Judge Ryan Nelson in a parallel case also handled by BecketSt. James School v. Biel. The dissenting judges called the alarm, stating that “Now thousands of Catholic schools in the West have less religious freedom than their Lutheran counterparts nationally.”  

Becket defended Our Lady of Guadalupe School, arguing 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. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court on August 28, 2019. On December 18, 2019 the Supreme Court agreed to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe, and consolidated the case with another Becket case, St. James School v. BielThe Court heard oral argument on May 11, 2020. Also representing Our Lady of Guadalupe were Linda Miller Savitt, John Manier, Stephanie Kantor of Ballard Rosenberg Golper & Savitt, LLP, 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 groups should be fully empowered to select their priests, rabbis, ministers and other religious teachers free from government interference. The Supreme Court has acknowledged this right under the ministerial exception 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. 

Sterlinski v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago

A diverse Catholic community, singing since 1893

St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Parish was founded over a century ago in Chicago by Polish families who desired a church community to call home. Today the modest church is dedicated to conveying its Catholic message to a diverse congregation by celebrating Mass in three different languages—English, Spanish, and Polish. One way it does that is through music.

In 1992, the church hired Stanislaw Sterlinski as its musical director. His responsibilities included performing music and leading the choir and congregation in singing during Mass and other liturgical celebrations such as weddings and funerals. The Catholic Church has always placed great importance in the role of music in religious worship, as whoever stands before the congregation in song expresses the Catholic message—both visually and audibly. Nor is that at all unusual: from Catholic Gregorian chant, to the Psalms of David sung in the synagogue, to the Vedic hymns sung by priests at Hindu weddings, music has held religious significance for millennia.

After the church ended Mr. Sterlinski’s employment, he sued the church in federal district court in Illinois. Although Mr. Sterlinski agrees that the government cannot dictate who a church selects to represent its faith, he argues that the church was wrong to say he did anything “religiously meaningful” because he viewed himself as only “robotically play[ing] notes.”

Churches—not the courts—gets to choose ministers

In a previous Becket case, EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously protected the right of a Lutheran school to select its religion teacher, free from government interference. The 2012 ruling set an important precedent confirming the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception,” which ensures that the church—not the state—gets to choose its leaders.

But Mr. Sterlinski’s lawsuit demands courts to become entangled in church affairs by second-guessing the church’s sincere determination that helping lead worship is religiously significant. In July 2018, the federal district court followed Supreme Court precedent and protected the church. The case was then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

The Seventh Circuit’s second chance at bolstering Supreme Court precedent

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a similar case in the Seventh Circuit, which in 2018 protected a Jewish day school’s right to select its Hebrew teacher without government interference. Becket also previously won unanimous victories in the Second and Third Circuit courts protecting the right of a Catholic school to choose its principal and of a Baptist church to choose its pastor, respectively. Becket is currently defending a Catholic school’s right to choose its religion teacher in a similar case before the Ninth Circuit.

On February 21, 2019, Becket and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Seventh Circuit, arguing that St. Stanislaus Church has the undisputed right to choose who its ministers are, free from governmental second-guessing. On August 8, 2019 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed with Becket, unanimously ruling in favor of St. Stanislaus Church. The Court also expressly rejected a bad recent Ninth Circuit decision, Biel v. St. James School, agreeing with Becket’s arguments about that case.

Importance to religious liberty:

  • Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Religious groups should be fully empowered to select the ministers who lead their congregations. The Supreme Court unanimously acknowledged that right in its 2012 Hosanna-Tabor decision concerning the “ministerial exception” and all courts should follow that precedent. Both church and state benefit when the state is not evaluating the internal decisions of a religious ministry.

St. James School v. Biel

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.

Su v. Stephen Wise Temple

A synagogue’s work at risk

Stephen S. Wise Temple is one of the largest and most prominent Reform Jewish synagogues in Southern California, serving its congregation through worship, community service, and education. But the Temple’s work was put at risk when the State of California claimed it could interfere with the synagogue’s internal decisions about its ministers.

In September 2013, the State of California sued the Temple in state court over whether the Temple gives certain ministers—here, preschool teachers—long enough lunch breaks. Represented by Horvitz Levy, the Temple stood up for its rights, arguing that California has no right to second guess the Temple’s decisions about how its ministers should carry out its religious mission.

The Supreme Court has confirmed autonomy for houses of worship

In March 2016, the trial court agreed with the Temple, basing its decision on the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which Becket won on behalf of a Lutheran elementary school in 2012. In Hosanna-Tabor, the Court unanimously recognized a principle of the First Amendment known as the ministerial exception, which states that the government should not interfere with religious institutions’ decisions about the employment of their ministers – including teachers in religious schools.

The State of California appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the ministerial exception does not apply to the Temple in this case. In July 2018, Becket – joined by the Church Of God In Christ denomination, one of the largest African-American denominations in the United States – filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the California Court of Appeals for the Fourth Appellate District. On March 8, 2019, the Court of Appeals ruled against the Temple, and on June 19, 2019, the California Supreme Court denied further review.

Houses of worship have the right to make their own decisions when it comes to choosing how their religious ministers will conduct religious ministry. Thus, the Temple, not the government, gets to determine how ministry should be performed by the ministers who teach Jewish religious values and traditions to young children.

Importance to religious liberty:

  • Freedom of religious groups to choose how their ministers will minister: 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 evaluating the internal religious affairs of a religious ministry.

Historic African-American church fights $2.6 million lawsuit by former pastor

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A small African-American Baptist church founded over a century ago in Pittsburgh is standing up in court against a lawsuit threatening to close its doors and deny its right to hold its religious leaders accountable. In Lee v. Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, the church is being sued by a former pastor after firing him because he failed to lead the church well. Late yesterday, Sixth Mount Zion, represented by Becket, urged a federal appellate court in Philadelphia to reject the pastor’s attempt to undermine churches’ ability to ensure their religious leaders don’t harm their ministry. 

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC unanimously protected a house of worship’s First Amendment right— known as the ministerial exception–to  hire or fire its ministers, free from government interference. Becket argues that Hosanna-Tabor’s ruling also protects Sixth Mount Zion from its former pastor’s attempt to use the courts to complain that the church was wrong to dismiss him for failed religious leadership.   

“Courts can’t second-guess a church’s conclusion that a minister is doing a bad job ministering,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket. “How would a federal judge evaluate the orthodoxy of a priest’s sermons or the fervor of a rabbi’s prayers? Judges shouldn’t be put in that impossible position, and the First Amendment says that they can’t be.”  

Founded in 1899, Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church hosts about 100 people at its Sunday worship services and is located in one of the poorest parts of Pittsburgh, where 25 percent of houses in the area sit vacant, unemployment is at 25 percent and over 30 percent of the households are led by single moms. In an attempt to help serve its community, the church selected Rev. David Lee as its pastor in 2012. But three months after becoming pastor, Rev. Lee insisted that the church sign a contract giving him a 20-year term in office while promising that they could still fire him if they believed he wasn’t leading well. The next two years under his leadership saw the church’s registered membership plummet 61 percent, Sunday morning worship attendance drop 32 percent, and tithes and offerings decrease 39 percent—all while church expenditures rose nearly 200 percent.   

When the church asked Rev. Lee to step down in 2015, he sued Sixth Mount Zion and eleven of its lay leaders for $2.6 million. A federal trial court rejected his lawsuit under the ministerial exception. Rev. Lee appealed that decision to U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit based in Philadelphia. He argues that the First Amendment shouldn’t apply because his failure to “attract new souls to Christ” was really just a “secular” failure, equivalent to a sports manager failing to “attract new fans to the game.” 

“To hear Rev. Lee tell it, Jesus Christ was a glorified sales manager, the Pope is a mere administrator, and the Dalai Lama is only a motivational speaker,” said Blomberg. “If the separation of church and state means anything, it means that courts can’t reduce houses of worship to religion-flavored social clubs, or tell them who should preach to them.”  

Oral argument in the case is expected later this year. The church is also represented by Alan Cech of Murtagh, Hobaugh & Cech, LLC. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.   

### 

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more). 

Lee v. Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church

A small African-American church serving the people of Pittsburgh

Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church is a small, historic African American church in Pittsburgh. Founded in 1899, its current worship services host about 100 people. The community served by Sixth Mount Zion is one of Pittsburgh’s poorest: one-third of the households in its neighborhood are headed by single moms, one quarter of the houses sit vacant, and one person is unemployed for every three that have a job. To support its community, Sixth Mount Zion hosts a number of ministries to the poor, including a monthly food-bank.

A pastor leads the church’s ministries into decline

In December 2012, the membership of Sixth Mount Zion called Reverend William David Lee to be its pastor. As the church’s pastor, Reverend Lee was expected to be the “only leader of the flock.” This meant leading the spiritual life of the church, including leading worship services, educating the congregation, and conducting weddings, baptisms, and funerals.

Three months after taking over the church’s leadership, Rev. Lee insisted that the church sign a contract giving him a 20-year term in office. When church members expressed concern, he assured them that they could still fire him if they believed he wasn’t leading the church in the right direction.

But two years after Reverend Lee became pastor, it became apparent that church life had changed under Lee’s religious leadership—for the worse. A joint board of church deacons and trustees found that membership had plummeted 61 percent, Sunday worship attendance had dropped 32 percent, and tithing and offerings had decreased 39 percent, while church expenses had increased 200 percent. Concerned for the church’s future, the church membership voted to have Rev. Lee step down from the pulpit in January 2015.

Becket defends Sixth Mount Zion’s right to choose its leader

In September 2015, Rev. Lee sued Sixth Mount Zion and eleven of the church’s lay leaders in federal court for $2.6 million.  In August 2017, the court rejected Rev. Lee’s lawsuit. Relying on Hosanna-Tabor, the court ruled that judges cannot second-guess a church’s decision about the quality of its pastor’s religious leadership.

In September 2017, Rev Lee appealed the federal court’s decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Becket filed its response brief on behalf of Sixth Mount Zion in April 2018. Oral argument took place in July 2018 (audio here).

In September 2018, the Third Circuit ruled 3-0 for the church, stating that the First Amendment prevents courts from deciding questions of spiritual leadership. The Third Circuit’s ruling bolsters the right of all houses of worship to select their leaders—a right called the “ministerial exception”—stating that “While the amount of church contributions and members is a matter of arithmetic, assessing Lee’s role … requires a determination of what constitutes adequate spiritual leadership.” That raises “questions that would impermissibly entangle the court in religious governance and doctrine prohibited by the Establishment Clause.”


Importance to religious liberty:

  • Freedom of groups to choose their own leaders: Becket’s 2012 Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor set a precedent protecting a church’s right to choose its own leaders. Both church and state are better off when the state isn’t evaluating the internal religious decisions of a religious ministry.

Grussgott v. Milwaukee Jewish Day School, Inc.

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.