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Appeals Court Says Catholic School Is Not Exempt From Fired Teacher's ADA Suit

A federal appeals court ruled Monday that a 5th grade teacher at a Roman Catholic school did not qualify as a minister of the Catholic faith, and thus the school did not qualify for the "ministerial exception" to civil rights laws, allowing the teacher to pursue her disability-rights lawsuit.

The teacher, Kristen Biel, alleges that she was fired from her job at St. James Elementary School in Torrance, Calif., part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, after informing administrators that she had breast cancer and would have to take time off for surgery and chemotherapy. The principal told Biel the school would not renew her contract because the teacher's classroom management was "not strict" and that "it was not fair ... to have two teachers for the children during the school year," court papers say. Six months earlier, Biel had received a largely positive teaching evaluation from the principal.

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Biel sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which bars employment discrimination based on disability. The school moved for summary judgment based on the ministerial exception recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2012 decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Under that decision, church and religious school employers are exempt from anti-discrimination laws for employees who are deemed to be ministers of the faith. The high court did not set a specific test for determining when an employee was covered by the ministerial exception, ruling that courts must examine the specifics of each case. Lower courts have been hashing out the contours of the exception, with the Supreme Court recently declining to hear the appeal of a Hebrew-language teacher fired by a Jewish day school.

In its Dec. 17 decision in Biel v. St. James School, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled 2-1 that Biel was not a minister of the church.

The majority said that in contrast to the teacher in the Hosanna-Tabor case, who was a commissioned Lutheran minister and a "called" teacher of the Lutheran faith, Biel had worked as a teacher for tutoring companies, multiple public schools, another Catholic school, and even a Lutheran school.

Biel is Catholic, but the school had no religious requirements for her position as 5th grade teacher, the majority said. 

"Nor did St. James hold Biel out as a minister by suggesting to its community that she had special expertise in Church doctrine, values, or pedagogy beyond that of any practicing Catholic," Judge Michelle T. Friedland wrote for the majority.

The majority acknowledged that Biel taught religion lessons to her 5th graders and sometimes participated in the school's prayers, but said that was not enough under Hosanna-Tabor to confer a ministerial exception on her employment.

A rule "under which any school employee who teaches religion would fall within the ministerial exception, would not be faithful to Hosanna-Tabor or its underlying constitutional and policy considerations," Friedland said. "Such a rule would ... base the exception on a single aspect of the employee's role rather than on a holistic examination of her training, duties, title, and the extent to which she is tasked with transmitting religious ideas."

The dissenter was Judge D. Michael Fisher, who participated in the case as a visiting judge from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia. He said he would apply the ministerial exception to the school. 

Among other reasons, Fisher said, Biel signed an employment contract indicating that she understood that the school's mission was "to develop and promote a Catholic School Faith Community within the philosophy of Catholic education as implemented at [St. James], and the doctrines, laws, and norms of the Catholic Church."

"In considering the complete picture of Biel's employment, I am struck by the importance of her stewardship of the Catholic faith to the children in her class," Fisher said. "Biel's Grade 5 Teacher title may not have explicitly announced her role in ministry, but the substance reflected in her title demonstrates that she was a Catholic school educator with a distinctly religious purpose."

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