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Orthodox Union Applauds Supreme Court Decision Upholding Religious Liberty; Secular Courts Cannot Interfere in Employment Disputes within Religious Schools and Congregations

Posted on July 8, 2020 In Amicus Briefs, Press Releases

Orthodox Union Brief Cited in Court’s Opinion

Today, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (Orthodox Union)–the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization–applauded a ruling issued by the U.S. Supreme Court finding that religious schools cannot be sued in secular court over the dismissal of a religious teacher.

In the combined cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey – Berru and St. James School v. Biel, the high court’s 7-2 decision today overturned a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The opinion was authored by Justice Alito in which the Chief Justice and Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh joined. The Orthodox Union filed an amicus brief urging this result in these cases and was cited in the court’s opinion (pg. 20, footnote 19). In mentioning the brief the OU joined, the opinion stated: “The contemporary American Jewish community continues to place the education of children in its faith and rites at the center of its communal efforts.”

Courts typically have ruled the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion shields churches and their operations from the reach of anti-discrimination laws when dealing with employees of religious institutions. The Court unanimously affirmed this “ministerial exception” in the 2012 case of Hosanna Tabor Evangelical School v. EEOC.  But in the two cases ruled on today, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit interpreted the ministerial exception in the narrowest way. Today, the Supreme Court clearly rejected that eviscerated approach.

Today, the Supreme Court said that was most important in assessing the scope of the ministerial exception is “what an employee” of a religious school or congregation “does…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” is covered and, said the Court’s majority, “when a school [or organization] with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with…educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threaten the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”

Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director for public policy, issued the following statement following the Court’s ruling:

“In its 7-2 ruling today, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld fundamental principles of religious freedom in the United States. The Court ensured that religious communities may form houses of worship, parochial schools and other institutions whose missions are to be places of worship, learning and service for a faith community and that such institutions are constitutionally protected from interference by the secular state. These First Amendment principles are essential for America to continue to be a place in which religious freedom and diversity thrive.”

Orthodox Union President Mark (Moishe) Bane stated:

“We applaud the Court for its decision and we express our appreciation for the blessing of living in the United States of America where Jews, and people of all faiths, can enjoy such expansive freedom of religion. We appreciate the recognition by Justice Alito and a majority of the Court that ‘religious education is vital to many faiths…including Judaism’ as expressed by Maimonides’s statement that religious instruction ‘is an obligation of the highest order.’ Today’s ruling will continue to protect this pillar of American Jewish life.”

Read the amicus brief the Orthodox Union joined in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey – Berru and St. James School v. Biel