Monday, September 30, 2019
Three cert petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court recently on the issue whether teachers with religious teaching functions in religiously grounded schools are "ministers" for purposes of the First Amendment's "ministerial exception," affirmed unanimously in the Hosanna-Tabor decision. Two are from the Ninth Circuit (Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, St. James Parish School v. Biel); one is from the California appellate courts (Stephen Wise Temple v. Su). In all three cases, the lower courts held that the teachers' religious functions were outweighed by the fact that they lacked a minister-like "credential, training," or title and/or were not "held out" as ministers by themselves or the school.
In the first-filed of these cert cases, Our Lady, the Ninth Circuit found the teacher to be a non-minister even though it admitted that she had "significant religious responsibilities": she “committed to incorporate Catholic values and teachings into her curriculum,” including a religion/Catholicism class she taught, and also “led her students in daily prayer, was in charge of liturgy planning for a monthly Mass, and directed and produced a performance by her students during the School’s Easter celebration every year.” The court objected to her lack of "credential, training, or ministerial background." The petitions in Our Lady and the other cases argue--to simplify a bit--that one who performs significant religious functions (leadership, teaching, liturgy/worship, etc.) in a religious organization should be considered a "minister" and should not be excluded because of "credentials" like title or training.
With the students in my religious liberty clinic and with the Christian Legal Society, I've filed an amicus brief arguing that a focus on "minister-like" title, training, or credential will discriminate against unfamiliar religions and will invite courts to second-guess an organization's understanding of how people qualify to be its leaders.
We've also presented what I think is a valuable originalist argument: that "narrow definitions of 'Minister,' especially through requirements of ministerial education or credentials, were a chief evil that helped spur adoption of the First Amendment," and that the founding generation would have regarded as violations of free exercise and incidents of establishment. Here's a bit:
The Constitution’s religious freedom guarantees arose in significant part from disputes between established colonial churches and Pietist dissenters, including “New Light” Congregationalists in Connecticut and Baptists in Massachusetts and Virginia....
The New Lights opposed the formally trained “legal preacher,” preferring a “layman who had experienced conversion” personally.... They believed that “the learned ['Old Light' establishment] clergy had lost touch with the spiritual needs of the common man and no longer really served as ministers of God to them.”
New England colonial legislatures, which reflected the views of the “Old Lights,” responded by taking steps to restrict or disfavor informally trained ministers. [McLoughlin, 1 New England Disssent] at 363. In 1742, Connecticut passed a law prohibiting “itinerants” from preaching without approval of an established parish. That same year, it also passed legislation “preventing any church or parish from choosing a minister who lacked a college degree.”
Likewise, Massachusetts passed a law in 1760 preventing legal recognition of parish ministers unless they had “academy or college training, or had obtained testimonials from the majority of the ministers already settled in the county.” Jacob C. Meyer, Church and State in Massachusetts 51 (1930). The law disqualified uncredentialed ministers, primarily Baptists, from receiving funds that were collected by each town’s authorities for support of worship.
... Like the[se] founding-era laws, the Ninth Circuit requires that a minister must have some sort of “credential, training, or ministerial background” [in this case, to fall within the ministerial exception]/
St. Thomas students Erik Money contributed excellent research and drafting to the brief.