[July 8, 2020]


Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases require us to decide whether the First Amendment permits courts to intervene in employment disputes involving teachers at religious schools who are entrusted with the responsibility of instructing their students in the faith. The First Amendment protects the right of religious institutions “to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” Applying this principle, we held in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), that the First Amendment barred a court from entertaining an employment discrimination claim brought by an elementary school teacher, Cheryl Perich, against the religious school where she taught. Our decision built on a line of lower court cases adopting what was dubbed the “ministerial exception” to laws governing the employment relationship between a religious institution and certain key employees. We did not announce “a rigid formula” for determining whether an employee falls within this exception, but we identified circumstances that we found relevant in that case, including Perich’s title as a “Minister of Religion, Commissioned,” her educational training, and her responsibility to teach religion and participate with students in religious activities.

In the cases now before us, we consider employment discrimination claims brought by two elementary school teachers at Catholic schools whose teaching responsibilities are similar to Perich’s. Although these teachers were not given the title of “minister” and have less religious training than Perich, we hold that their cases fall within the same rule that dictated our decision in Hosanna-Tabor. The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission. Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.

The first of the two cases we now decide involves Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who was employed at Our Lady of Guadalupe School (OLG), a Roman Catholic primary school in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. For many years, Morrissey-Berru was employed at OLG as a lay fifth or sixth grade teacher. Like most elementary school teachers, she taught all subjects, and since OLG is a Catholic school, the curriculum included religion. As a result, she was her students’ religion teacher. . . .

Each year, Morrissey-Berru and OLG entered into an employment agreement, that set out the school’s “mission” and Morrissey-Berru’s duties. The agreement stated that the school’s mission was “to develop and promote a Catholic School Faith Community,”and it informed Morrissey-Berru that “[a]ll [her] duties and responsibilities as a Teache[r were to] be performed within this overriding commitment.”The agreement explained that the school’s hiring and retention decisions would be guided by its Catholic mission, and the agreement made clear that teachers were expected to “model and promote” Catholic “faith and morals.” Under the agreement, Morrissey-Berru was required to participate in “[s]chool liturgical activities, as requested,” and the agreement specified that she could be terminated “for ‘cause’ ” for failing to carry out these duties or for “conduct that brings discredit upon the School or the Roman Catholic Church.” The pastor of the parish, a Catholic priest, had to approve Morrissey-Berru’s hiring each year.  . . .

In 2014, OLG asked Morrissey-Berru to move from a full-time to a part-time position, and the next year, the school declined to renew her contract. She filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), received a right-to-sue letter, and then filed suit under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, claiming that the school had demoted her and had failed to renew her contract so that it could replace her with a younger teacher. The school maintains that it based its decisions on classroom performance—specifically, Morrissey-Berru’s difficulty in administering a new reading and writing program, which had been introduced by the school’s new principal as part of an effort to maintain accreditation and improve the school’s academic program.

Invoking the “ministerial exception” that we recognized in Hosanna-Tabor, OLG successfully moved for summary judgment, but the Ninth Circuit reversed in a brief opinion.  . . .


The independence of religious institutions in matters of “faith and doctrine” is closely linked to independence in what we have termed “‘matters of church government.’ ” This does not mean that religious institutions enjoy a general immunity from secular laws, but it does protect their autonomy with respect to internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission. And a component of this autonomy is the selection of the individuals who play certain key roles.

The “ministerial exception” was based on this insight. Under this rule, courts are bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions. The rule appears to have acquired the label “ministerial exception” because the individuals involved in pioneering cases were described as “ministers.” But it is instructive to consider why a church’s independence on matters “of faith and doctrine” requires the authority to select, supervise, and if necessary, remove a minister without interference by secular authorities. Without that power, a wayward minister’s preaching, teaching, and counseling could contradict the church’s tenets and lead the congregation away from the faith. The ministerial exception was recognized to preserve a church’s independent authority in such matters.

When the so-called ministerial exception finally reached this Court in Hosanna-Tabor, we unanimously recognized that the Religion Clauses foreclose certain employment discrimination claims brought against religious organizations. The constitutional foundation for our holding was the general principle of church autonomy to which we have already referred: independence in matters of faith and doctrine and in closely linked matters of internal government. The three prior decisions on which we primarily relied drew on this broad principle, and none was exclusively concerned with the selection or supervision of clergy.

In Hosanna-Tabor, Cheryl Perich, a kindergarten and fourth grade teacher at an Evangelical Lutheran school, filed suit in federal court, claiming that she had been discharged because of a disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The school responded that the real reason for her dismissal was her violation of the Lutheran doctrine that disputes should be resolved internally and not by going to outside authorities. We held that her suit was barred by the “ministerial exception” and noted that it “concern[ed] government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church.” We declined “to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister,” and we added that it was “enough for us to conclude, in this our first case involving the ministerial exception, that the exception covers Perich, given all the circumstances of her employment.” We identified four relevant circumstances but did not highlight any as essential.

First, we noted that her church had given Perich the title of “minister, with a role distinct from that of most of its members.” Although she was not a minister in the usual sense of the term—she was not a pastor or deacon, did not lead a congregation, and did not regularly conduct religious services—she was classified as a “called” teacher, as opposed to a lay teacher, and after completing certain academic requirements, was given the formal title “ ‘Minister of Religion, Commissioned.’ ” Second, Perich’s position “reflected a significant degree of religious training followed by a formal process of commissioning.” Third, “Perich held herself out as a minister of the Church by accepting the formal call to religious service, according to its terms,” and by claiming certain tax benefits. Fourth, “Perich’s job duties reflected a role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.”

If titles were all-important, courts would have to decide which titles count and which do not, and it is hard to see how that could be done without looking behind the titles to what the positions actually entail. Moreover, attaching too much significance to titles would risk privileging religious traditions with formal organizational structures over those that are less formal.

For related reasons, the academic requirements of a position may show that the church in question regards the position as having an important responsibility in elucidating or teaching the tenets of the faith. Presumably the purpose of such requirements is to make sure that the person holding the position understands the faith and can explain it accurately and effectively. But insisting in every case on rigid academic requirements could have a distorting effect. This is certainly true with respect to teachers. Teaching children in an elementary school does not demand the same formal religious education as teaching theology to divinity students. Elementary school teachers often teach secular subjects in which they have little if any special training. In addition, religious traditions may differ in the degree of formal religious training thought to be needed in order to teach. In short, these circumstances, while instructive in Hosanna-Tabor, are not inflexible requirements and may have far less significance in some cases.

What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does. And implicit in our decision in Hosanna-Tabor was a recognition that 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 of a private religious school. As we put it, Perich had been entrusted with the responsibility of “transmitting the Lutheran faith to the next generation.” One of the concurrences made the same point, concluding that the exception should include “any ‘employee’ who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.”

Religious education is vital to many faiths practiced in the United States. This point is stressed by briefs filed in support of OLG and St. James by groups affiliated with a wide array of faith traditions. In the Catholic tradition, religious education is “‘intimately bound up with the whole of the Church’s life.’ ” Under canon law, local bishops must satisfy themselves that “those who are designated teachers of religious instruction in schools . . . are outstanding in correct doctrine, the witness of a Christian life, and teaching skill.”

When we apply this understanding of the Religion Clauses to the cases now before us, it is apparent that Morrissey-Berru and Biel qualify for the exemption we recognized in Hosanna-Tabor. There is abundant record evidence that they both performed vital religious duties. Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught, and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility. As elementary school teachers responsible for providing instruction in all subjects, including religion, they were the members of the school staff who were entrusted most directly with the responsibility of educating their students in the faith. And not only were they obligated to provide instruction about the Catholic faith, but they were also expected to guide their students, by word and deed, toward the goal of living their lives in accordance with the faith. They prayed with their students, attended Mass with the students, and prepared the children for their participation in other religious activities. Their positions did not have all the attributes of Perich’s. Their titles did not include the term “minister,” and they had less formal religious training, but their core responsibilities as teachers of religion were essentially the same. And both their schools expressly saw them as playing a vital part in carrying out the mission of the church, and the schools’ definition and explanation of their roles is important. In a country with the religious diversity of the United States, judges cannot be expected to have a complete understanding and appreciation of the role played by every person who performs a particular role in every religious tradition. A religious institution’s explanation of the role of such employees in the life of the religion in question is important.

Respondents argue that Morrissey-Berru cannot fall within the Hosanna-Tabor exception because she said in connection with her lawsuit that she was not “a practicing Catholic,” but acceptance of that argument would require courts to delve into the sensitive question of what it means to be a “practicing” member of a faith, and religious employers would be put in an impossible position. Morrissey-Berru’s employment agreements required her to attest to “good standing” with the church. Beyond insisting on such an attestation, it is not clear how religious groups could monitor whether an employee is abiding by all religious obligations when away from the job. Was OLG supposed to interrogate Morrissey-Berru to confirm that she attended Mass every Sunday?

Respondents argue that the Hosanna-Tabor exception is not workable unless it is given a rigid structure, but we declined to adopt a “rigid formula” in Hosanna-Tabor, and the lower courts have been applying the exception for many years without such a formula. Here, as in Hosanna-Tabor, it is sufficient to decide the cases before us. When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.