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Atheists Urge Supreme Court to Protect Employees from Discriminatory Religious Organizations

Washington, D.C.—In an amicus brief filed today, American Atheists, the Center for Inquiry, and the American Humanist Association urged the Supreme Court to deny attempts by religious employers to ignore non-discrimination laws on the basis of their religion. 

At the center of the consolidated cases Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel is the ministerial exception, a court doctrine that allows religious organizations to select their religious leaders—ministers, pastors, or priests—without government oversight. The two Catholic schools in question, however, are petitioning the court to expand the ministerial exception to include teachers with limited religious duties.

“An overexpansion of the ministerial exception—far past its original intent—would violate the Constitution and virtually dissolve civil rights and labor protections for countless employees that work for religious organizations,” said Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy at American Atheists.

Lawyers for the two religious schools are asserting a theory of “ecclesiastical immunity,” which would prevent courts from reviewing any discrimination claim by an employee at a religious organization if the employer merely asserts that the person performed a religious function.

“If the Catholic schools have their way, they could call any employee a ‘religious leader.’ There would be zero oversight, and nothing would prevent religious hospitals, shelters, and even private businesses from citing this case to discriminate at will and without notice,” added Gill.

“Twisting the ministerial exception in order to discriminate against employees with secular duties is not only unconstitutional, it’s immoral,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “This is just the latest attempt by religious groups to weaponize their religion and use it as a license to discriminate. We can only hope the Supreme Court sees through this cynical attempt to gut what few protections employees have in this country.”

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Image by Visitor7 under CC BY-SA 3.0.