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Agudath Israel of America and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty filed, yesterday, an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in a case before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. The case has significant implications for religious freedom.

Under what has come to be known as the “ministerial exception,” courts may not interfere in employment disputes involving employees who hold religious positions in religious institutions, in order to preserve the religious freedom of those institutions, one of the protections of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. This case, DeWeese-Boyd v. Gordon College, involves defining who exactly is a “minister” for the purpose of determining whether that employee may sue his employer, a religious organization.

The United States Supreme Court has broadly defined who qualifies as a minister for purposes of this exception, most recently earlier this year in the case of Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru. In the Gordon College case, the Superior Court of Massachusetts, adopted a narrower test, which held that to determine whether an employee of a religious organization is a minister, the courts should consider whether the position required proselytizing; whether the employee used his or her title in a manner that would indicate that he or she was authorized to speak on church doctrine; and whether the employee’s functions were essentially liturgical.

The brief submitted yesterday argued that adopting the test suggested by the Massachusetts Superior Court would discriminate against Jewish organizations by barring Jewish religious employees from being considered ministers, because: 1) Jews do not proselytize; 2) most Jewish teachers at schools do not have the authority to speak on religious doctrine as the courts have defined that term; and 3) most rabbis and teachers do not engage in primarily liturgical functions. Instead, the brief urged the court to defer to religious organizations’ good-faith determinations that their employees’ duties are “ministerial.”

The amicus brief submitted by Agudath Israel of America and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty was authored primarily by a team of attorneys at the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, who took on this case pro bono for the Jewish organizations. Attorneys at both organizations, including Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s Vice President for Government Affairs, Mordechai Biser, Special Counsel for Agudath Israel, and Howard Slugh of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, also contributed to the brief.

Rabbi Biser thanked the attorneys at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher for their work on the brief. He said, “We hope that the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts rejects the narrow definition adopted by the Superior Court and instead adopts a broader test that defers to religious organizations in defining whether their employees’ duties are considered ministerial for the purposes of the ministerial exception.”