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Supreme Court ruling clarifies ‘ministerial exception’

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The Supreme Court ruled teachers at religious schools are not covered by discrimination laws. Experts say that ruling could limit teachers’ civil rights. The justices provided more clarity on the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception”.

The First Amendment protects the right of religious institutions, giving them the ability to decide for themselves, free from state interference. But experts say this gives an unfair amount of power to religious institutions.

The Supreme Court Wednesday sided with two California catholic schools saying certain employees at religious institutions cannot sue for employment discrimination under the “ministerial exception”.

The ruling reinforces one handed down in 2012 specifying who falls under that term.

“Teacher does not have to have the title minister but if the teacher does any kind of ministerial duties or teaches church doctrine, church literature, church ethics. Even one task qualifies the teacher as a minister potentially,” said Jennifer Drobac, Indiana University McKinney School of Law.

Giving the Supreme Court’s opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “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.”

“You can imagine that religious institutions are going to make sure that all their teachers have at least one task assigned to them so that school can let them go and not be subject to civil rights law,” said Drobac.

The ruling could keep future cases like the ones here in Indianapolis where a Roncalli High School counselor was fired for a same sex marriage, and a similar case involving a teacher at Cathedral High School from going forward.

While the ruling stands, legal experts say concerned community members still have a voice.

“It’s really important for citizens in the community to make sure that our fellow citizens are being treated fairly,” Drobac said.

In a dissenting opinion Justice Sonya Sotamayor wrote: “This sweeping result is profoundly unfair. The Court is not only wrong on the facts, but its error also risks upending anti-discrimination protections for many employees of religious entities.”

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis also released the following statement:

“We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision recognizing that Catholic schools must be free to make decisions about those entrusted to educate and form students in the Catholic faith. Catholic educators play a vital role in guiding their students, by word and deed, and passing on the faith to future generations.”