Supreme Court’s exception to federal bias laws could impact teachers at BYU, other religious schools

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) This April 19, 2016, file photo, shows a welcome sign at Brigham Young University in Provo. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling carving out religious schoolteachers from anti-discrimination protections could have a wide-reaching effect in Utah.

A new Supreme Court ruling excluding certain religious schoolteachers from federal employment protections could leave many workers at church-owned institutions in the Beehive State without the ability to sue over workplace discrimination, legal experts say.

The high court decided 7-2 on Wednesday that some instructors in religious schools are covered by a “ministerial exception” to the fair employment laws that typically apply to workers — a finding that legal scholars say is grounded in the idea that faith groups should have the right of self-governance.

“The thinking was that the First Amendment protection of religious freedoms meant that it would be a bad idea for judges to be interfering in the inner workings of religious institutions,” said RonNell Andersen Jones, a law professor at the University of Utah.

And in a state like Utah, home to Brigham Young University (BYU) and many other organizations run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the ruling could have a wide-reaching impact, she noted.

A BYU spokesperson said the court’s judgment appears to capture the university, citing a section of the opinion that decries judicial intervention at a religious school that “entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith.”

“BYU is entitled to the First Amendment protection outlined in the Court’s opinion,” wrote spokesperson Carri Jenkins. “The exact way in which the First Amendment applies when there are disputes between the school and the faculty will depend on the facts of the case.”

Religious schools should have agency over deciding who conveys the tenets of their faith to the next generation, contends Luke Goodrich, an adjunct law professor at the University of Utah and vice president at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The justices’ decision Wednesday protects that ability, added Goodrich, whose firm defended the two Catholic parochial schools involved in the Supreme Court decision.

The ruling’s reach extends past teachers at K-12 schools, Goodrich argued, and could include employees of church-owned universities as well as workers at religious charities. Essentially, the exemption to fair employment laws covers any employee who “plays an important role in inculcating the faith,” he said.

Like pastors, priests and rabbis, teachers who offer religious guidance to students would likely fall under the “ministerial exception,” he said. So would charitable workers who often lead worship services or pray with the people they serve.

Frederick Gedicks, a professor at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, said the majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito could leave open the door to a much broader interpretation that would include anyone who’s hired to “exemplify” religious precepts.

Employees lumped into this legal carveout are essentially barred from suing over a lost job, even if they have evidence that their firing was discriminatory, according to Gedicks.

“If that person is a minister, then you can terminate them for any reason or no reason,” he said.

BYU expects its faculty to adhere to the highest standards of the Latter-day Saint faith, he says. Moreover, many professors across disciplines begin their classes with prayer and weave doctrine or theology into their lectures, Gedicks explained.

So although the ruling seems obviously applicable to religious education professors, it could also affect instructors in other parts of the university, he said.

The challenge for courts going forward, Gedicks added, will be further defining who should be considered a minister and who shouldn’t.

“They’re going to have to develop criteria for keeping the set of employees subject to the ministerial exception under control,” he said. “But there’s quite broad language in the majority opinion, so that’s not going to be an easy feat.”

Andersen Jones agreed that the Supreme Court justices are giving wide latitude to religious institutions to hire and fire whom they please. The decision is in keeping with a trend under Chief Justice John Roberts “to quite broadly construe both of the religion clauses in the First Amendment to be very generous towards the religious,” she said.

But Goodrich said Wednesday’s rulings are not “some new-fangled development that’s suddenly going to work a sea change to employment law,” and instead reaffirms the way lower courts have long been interpreting the constitution.

And while ministerial employees can’t sue over discrimination, Goodrich said there are typically avenues for appeal within religious organizations. Gedicks said faculty at BYU and other religious universities also might be somewhat shielded by accreditation organizations, which might frown on schools that liberally exercise the ability to dismiss their professors for any reason.

Troy Williams, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Utah, said Wednesday’s ruling will not impact Utah’s landmark anti-discrimination law, which already contained an exemption for religious schools.

“Now that the court has addressed this issue, we look forward to pursuing other critical issues, like public accommodations protections at the state and federal level,” Williams said in a prepared statement.

The two Supreme Court cases in question were filed by fifth-grade teachers at a pair of Catholic schools in California, according to The New York Times. In one, the teacher alleged her school had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by declining to renew her contract after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the other, a teacher accused her former employer of firing her because of age discrimination.

The two schools denied these allegations but claimed that federal protections against workplace bias wouldn’t apply to the teachers anyway because of the ministerial exception, according to a National Public Radio report.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the majority opinion in favor of the Catholic schools.