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Will Supreme Court Let Religious Schools Choose Their Own Teachers?

Supreme Court of the United States at Sunset

On Monday, the First Liberty Institute filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the US Supreme Court to protect the right of religious schools to decide who teaches their faith in the case of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru.

"The Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision that the Constitution bars the government from imposing an unwanted minister on a church," said Stephanie Taub, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute. "The unanimous Court held that this principle applies to at least some teachers at religious schools. Now, the Ninth Circuit has questioned the school's right to freely choose who will teach religion to the next generation."

As CBN News reported in December, the high court announced it will take up two cases which could decide if religious institutions have the right to pick who teaches their religion - or if the government gets to have the final say. The other case is St. James Catholic School v. Biel.

Both cases will be rolled into one case for a hearing this spring at the court. Both involve California Catholic schools that each dismissed fifth-grade teachers the schools felt were performing their jobs poorly.

The teachers were deeply involved in the religious education of their students. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned lower court rulings and decided neither teacher was so involved in religious teaching that the schools should be allowed to get rid of them.

According to First Liberty's brief, "The Free Exercise Clause protects mosques, synagogues, churches, and other religious organizations' right to freely convey their religious teachings through their ministers. The question before the Court is who should be considered a 'minister.' Any definition of minister that confines ministers to particular titles or that prefers ministers in particular organizational structures, such as hierarchical, formal churches, must be rejected. Likewise, any definition that requires judicial scrutiny into religious doctrinal questions must also be rejected."

In a unanimous 2012 decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, the Supreme Court concluded that the First Amendment's ministerial exception prevents employment-related cases from being brought by ministerial employees against their religious employers. 

As Justices Alito and Kagan explain in their concurrence, "Religious autonomy means that religious authorities must be free to determine who is qualified to serve in positions of substantial religious importance."

In that ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, "The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way."

The Ninth Circuit is the most overruled of all the nation's federal courts of appeal. 

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