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In a much-anticipated decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled yesterday that, under what has come to be known as the “ministerial exception,” courts may not interfere in employment disputes that arise between employees who perform vital religious duties and their faith-based employers.
In consolidated cases involving elementary school teachers who were terminated by the Roman Catholic school that employed them, the Court asserted that what matters is what employees do, regardless of their not having formal religious titles, and that the teachers in these cases performed responsibilities that were essentially religious in nature and not subject to a court’s scrutiny. The two consolidated cases are Our Lady of Guadalupe School v Morissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel.
Writing for the majority in the 7-2 reversal of the federal appellate court’s decision, Justice Samuel A. Alito made multiple references to Jewish institutions and practices, and cited the amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief, which was submitted by the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (“COLPA”) and authored by noted constitutional scholar, Nathan Lewin. That brief was filed on behalf of several major national Orthodox Jewish organizations, including Agudath Israel of America, Agudas Harabbonim of the United States and Canada, National Council of Young Israel, the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce, the Rabbinical Alliance of America, the Rabbinical Council of America (“RCA”), and Torah Umesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools.
The COLPA brief argued that the lower court’s ruling was “hostile to religious freedom in the United States” because it allowed the courts to intervene in determining that even though a teacher had substantial religious responsibilities, she was not determined to be a “minister.” The Supreme Court rejected such intervention and decided that the teacher’s vital religious duties brought her within the scope of a “minister” and that her relationship with her religious employer was, under the “ministerial exception,” a private ecclesiastical matter beyond the reach of the courts.
“The importance of religious autonomy, particularly in the context of religious schools, cannot be overemphasized,” noted Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel of America’s Vice President of Government Affairs and Washington Counsel. “The hiring rights of these institutions is so fundamental to their character and mission that government interference in these matters could undermine the very purpose for a religious entity’s existence.”
Mr. Lewin’s brief presented a uniquely Jewish perspective on the issue. It provided the Court with a detailed historical exposition of the importance of preserving the Jewish community’s autonomy, including with regard to defining what constitutes “ministerial” positions and activity. This was indeed noted in the Court’s decision, which found that requiring an employee to have the title “minister” cannot be a necessary requirement for the “ministerial exception,” as the term “minister” encompasses in Judaism, for example, an extensive breadth of religious functionaries.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America, thanked Nathan Lewin for his work and noted Mr. Lewin’s long association with Agudath Israel. “We thank Nat Lewin not just for writing this very important brief in this major case for religious freedom, but for his many decades of advocacy at the highest levels on behalf of the Jewish community.”