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Supreme Court Could Decide if Government or Church Gets to Pick Religion Teachers

Supreme Court Justices

WASHINGTON — The US Supreme Court has agreed to weigh in on an important religious liberty concern. On Wednesday, 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.

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.

These 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.

Who Does America Want Deciding These Things?

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty asked the Supreme Court to hear the cases.

"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," argued Becket Vice President Eric Rassbach in a statement.

"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," he continued.

'Church Must be Free to Choose'

The Ninth Circuit is the most overruled of all the nation's federal courts of appeal.  Becket suggests the Ninth Circuit in overruling these two religious schools has directly contradicted the Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in Hosanna-Tabor, a 2012 decision that Lutheran schools have the absolute right to decide who could teach religion to their students.

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

Dissenting judges on the California-based Ninth Circuit cited Hosanna-Tabor in arguing against these rulings  The dissenting judges warned, "Now thousands of Catholic schools in the West have less religious freedom than their Lutheran counterparts nationally."  

Important First Amendment Concern

Becket Executive Director Montserrat Alvarado stated, "Parents trust Catholic schools to assist them in one of their most important duties: forming the faith of their children.   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."

The two cases are Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel. In the Morrissey-Berru case, the Ninth Circuit agreed the teacher had "significant religious responsibilities," but decided those duties weren't religious enough for the school to invoke its First Amendment right to control who's teaching the faith to its students.

The cases involve something known as the ministerial exception. It represents the idea that religious groups involved in teaching their faith can only truly be free from government interference if they have full control of choosing who teaches that faith in their institutions.

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