May 31, 2013

Teachers v. church schools v. the government

The conflicting claims of legal rights of church teachers and church schools are being further tested in the federal courts.

In California this week, a federal judge ruled in the case of Family, Life, Faith and Freedom v. Lynda Serrano. In this case, a Calvary Chapel school sued two former teachers to prevent them from suing the school.

The teachers refused to submit statements of faith and pastors' recommendation letters, a year ago, and they were let go. The school deems its teachers to be "spiritual leaders," and considers the paperwork necessary in evaluating instructors' continuing spiritual leadership qualifications. It's not clear from the court documents why the teachers did not want to explain their faith and get pastors to write them letters of recommendations, but when their contracts were not renewed, they threatened to sue for wrongful termination. The church school then took its former teachers to federal court.

The lawyers for the school argued that if the teachers were allowed to make the case they had been discriminated against, that would violate the church's constitutionally protected right to the free exercise of religion.

Judge Dolly M. Gee, an Obama administration appointee, granted the teachers' motion to dismiss the suit on Tuesday. Interestingly, the ruling doesn't go so far as to say the teachers can sue their religious employer, but does say federal law cannot prevent them from filing wrongful termination suits in state court.

Gee wrote:
it is apparent that Plaintiff’s entire complaint consists of anticipated defenses to a yet-to-be-filed state court religious discrimination suit, and thus no federal question is raised. This Court therefore has no subject matter jurisdiction.
The judge criticized the lawsuit fairly harshly, calling the school's lawyers incompetent several times, and suggesting the suit was meant to harass and intimidate the ex-teachers. Some of the school's arguments would have been "dispelled by a modicum of competent legal research," Gee wrote. The church was ordered to pay the ex-teachers' lawyers' fees.

The school, for its part, will reportedly appeal the decision.

This case connects to the landmark Supreme Court decision handed down last year, where the court ruled the First Amendment right to free religious exercise entails a "ministerial exception" to laws against employment discrimination. In Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the Supreme Court decided religious groups get to establish their own standards for determining who is a minister, and that if someone is considered to be a minister, they are not entitled to protections against employment discrimination. Ministers can be fired for basically any reason.

The Hosanna-Tabor case involved a "called" teacher at a Lutheran school. She got sick, went on sick leave, and then when she was approved to go back to work by her doctors, the school made moves to dismiss her because of anxieties about her condition, narcolepsy. The teacher threatened to sue, and then the school fired her for making the threat, which they said was a violation of their beliefs about conflict between Christians.

No secular school would have been allowed to fire that teacher. No religious school would either -- unless it had established that teachers were more than teachers, they were ministers, and so subject to all the capriciousness of those they served.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, "The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision."

In Family, Life, Faith and Freedom v. Lynda Serrano, the Calvary Chapel school lawyers cited Hosanna-Tabor, about the rights of religious groups to not be held to the standards of employment law. The teachers at their school are also considered ministers, and were also fired for threatening legal action against a church school employer. The school's lawyers attempted to argue that the ministerial exemption from employment law should also mean protection from possible discrimination litigation in state court.

According to Judge Gee, the federal courts don't have the jurisdiction necessary to block anticipated state court lawsuits that might violate churches' religious right of hiring and firing ministers. Whether or not the appeal will go anywhere remains to be seen.

It seems likely, though, that the courts will be facing more cases like this in the future. They'll continue to hear cases where there are conflicting claims about the rights of teachers and church schools, where they have to determine the scope of this constitutional protection of a "ministerial exception," and figure out the consequences and the logical, legal extensions of last year's landmark decision for religious liberty.