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The U.S. Supreme Court adopted a broad reading of a legal doctrine that shields religious employers from anti-discrimination laws, saying the First Amendment bars secular courts from deciding if the religious duties of teachers at two Catholic schools are important enough to justify the exemption.

In a 7-2 vote, the justices reversed a pair of similar Ninth Circuit rulings that revived age and disability discrimination suits lodged against two Catholic schools by elementary school teachers. The schools had each asked the justices to clarify when the so-called “ministerial exception” — a decades-old legal doctrine that shields religious employers from certain workers' claims — bars courts from hearing suits against religious organizations.

The exception was first recognized by the high court in a 2012 case in which the justices unanimously laid out a loose framework for how the exception should be applied but declined to adopt any sort of rigid legal test.  The Supreme Court held that the "First Amendment's religion clauses foreclose the adjudication of [the workers'] employment-discrimination claims."

The two cases at issue from the Ninth Circuit each involve elementary school teachers who instructed pupils in religion as part of a broad range of job duties. In each case, the appellate court ruled in favor of the teachers, saying they performed limited religious duties or that their secular duties outweighed their religious duties.  Please click here to download the full SCOTUS ruling.

If you have questions about how this development might affect your organization, please contact Joseph F. Spitzzeri.