December 18, 2019 / 2:57 PM / a month ago

U.S. Supreme Court takes up bid by Catholic schools to avoid worker lawsuits

FILE PHOTO: Light from the setting sun shines on the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to decide the extent to which religious organizations are immune from lawsuits filed by employees in two cases involving teachers at Catholic schools in California who sued after losing their jobs.

One case involves teacher Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who filed a lawsuit against Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach after her contract was not renewed in 2015 over what the school said were concerns about her performance. Morrissey-Berru sued, accusing the school of age discrimination.

In the other case, teacher Kristen Biel sued St. James School in Torrance after her contract was not renewed in 2014 while she was being treated for breast cancer. She has since died and the case is being pursued by her widower, Darryl Biel.

Biel said in her lawsuit that her termination violated a federal law called the Americans with Disabilities Act.

At issue is the scope of the so-called ministerial exemption under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects freedom of religious expression. The exemption allows religious entities to avoid such claims when brought by certain employees.

In both new cases, district court judges ruled in favor of the schools but the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held on appeal that the exemption did not apply, saying both women held the secular role of teachers and were not ministers.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 2012 in a similar case from Michigan that a former teacher and minister at a church school could not sue her employer after she lost her job.

The high court will hear arguments and issue a ruling by the end of June.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham

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