The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday in a landmark case that could reshape the employment practices of religious institutions.
Since the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, religious institutions have been considered exempt from many anti-discrimination laws. However, a teacher who was fired from a Lutheran school in Michigan after taking sick leave for narcolepsy is claiming that her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act were violated, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed.
It is unclear how the Court’s decision could affect Georgetown.
Assistant Vice President for Communications Stacy Kerr declined to address whether Georgetown officials have discussed the pending case, or if Georgetown claims religious immunity on matters of employment discrimination.
“We await the Court’s ultimate decision, so that we can assess the impact, if any, on Georgetown University,” Kerr said.
Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., vice president of mission and ministry, declined to comment.
This is one of the first cases in which the Supreme Court has considered whether religious schools should be required to meet the same non-discrimination requirements as other institutions.
Professor Andrea Mayer, who teaches constitutional law at Georgetown and has worked for the federal government on employment discrimination cases, said she was not surprised that the case has reached the Supreme Court.
“Any time there is a persistent U.S. Court of Appeals split concerning constitutional interpretation,” she said, “It doesn’t surprise me that the Supreme Court would want to resolve that – serving that important function of providing consistency in the law.”
The debate before the court centers on whether faculty at religious schools who are teaching secular subjects should receive the same legal treatment as religious leaders. The school argues that it is impossible to distinguish what is secular and non-secular in religious education.
“There is a really interesting debate about how religious institutions operate, and the degree to which every member of that institution is carrying out a religious purpose,” Mayer said. “I think this decision could have a fairly broad-sweeping impact on all types of religious institutions.”
Dozens of amicus briefs have been filed, including one from a group of law and religion professors who believe that the ministerial exception has no constitutional basis.
“What’s at stake are the protections for hundreds of thousands of people who work for religious employers,” brief co-author Caroline Mala Corbin, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law told The Hoya. “The question is will they be covered by anti-discrimination laws? Will they have the right to sue if they’ve been discriminated against on the basis of race, or age, or sex, or as is the case here, disabilities?”
Advocates for the exception argue that giving the courts the authority to determine who is and is not serving a religious function would create an excessive entanglement between the government and religious institutions, which past Supreme Court decisions have condemned.
Corbin argues that the exception creates the greatest entanglement.
“In my view, it should be eliminated entirely, and it shouldn’t matter if you are a minister,” she explained. “If you have a discrimination claim, you should be able to bring it.”