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U.S. Supreme Court Declines Appeal of Teacher Fired by Jewish Day School

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up the appeal of a Hebrew-language teacher at a Jewish day school who claims she was fired in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The case would have given the court a chance to further define the "ministerial exception" it recognized six years ago, in which church and religious school employers are exempt from anti-discrimination laws for employees who are deemed to be ministers of that faith.

In the case denied review, Miriam Grussgott, a former Hebrew teacher at Milwaukee Jewish Day School, says she had no job responsibilities that were religious in nature when she was terminated in 2015 after a verbal altercation with a parent. Grussgott alleges that the parent had taunted her over a brain tumor Grussgott had suffered, and she says she was let go because of cognitive issues stemming from the brain tumor in violation of the ADA.

The school disputed that Grussgott's job served no religious role, saying in court papers that she had originally been hired as both a Hebrew and Jewish studies teacheR. The school disputes the facts of her termination, but its main argument is that its decision to fire Grusgott falls squarely within the ministerial exception recognized by the Supreme Court in a 2012 decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Both a federal district court and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, held that the ministerial exception applied to Grussgott's teaching position.

While Grussgott's title as a Hebrew teacher alone would not qualify for the exception, Hebrew teachers at the school were expected to follow a unified Hebrew and Jewish studies curriculum known as Tal Am, and the school expected its Hebrew teachers to integrate religious teachings into their lessons.

"Her integral role in teaching her students about Judaism and the school's motivation in hiring her, in particular, demonstrate that her role furthered the school's religious mission," the 7th Circuit panel said in a 3-0 decision in February.

In her appeal to the Supreme Court in Grussgott v. Milwaukee Jewish Day School (Case No. 18-125), the dismissed teacher contends that the school should not qualify for any ministerial exception because it has lay people administering the school, none of Its leaders are clergy members, and it does not have an "ecclesiastical hierarchy" or authority at its head, as she contends is required under Hosanna-Tabor.

In its response brief urging the justices not to take the case, the school says, "Setting aside many factual inaccuracies that Grussgott asserts, accepting an 'ordination test' on internal religious structure would impermissibly entangle courts in policing religious beliefs. It would also exclude from the First Amendment's protection entire religious denominations, which either do not have, or theologically reject, the concept of ordination."

As for whether her job was religious, the school said Grussgott led Jewish prayer sessions, "taught directly from the Torah, attended prayer services in the school's chapel, incorporated Jewish symbolism and ideology into her lessons, participated in observing and celebrating the Jewish Sabbath in school every Friday, and taught Hebrew through an integrated curriculum focused on Judaism and Jewish culture."

The justices had sought a response to Grussgott's self-written appeal after the school had initially declined to file one. But on Nov. 5, they declined the teacher's appeal without comment.

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