point of order

Supreme Court arguments reference 2013 Baltimore synagogue legal battle

The seven-year-old case dealt with employment discrimination

A Maryland District court case from 2013 involving the construction of a sukkah at a Jewish day school was highlighted in oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Monday amid a debate over whether parochial school employees are protected by employment discrimination laws.

The cases Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel, which are currently in front of the Supreme Court, both focus on contract-renewal decisions at a Catholic school. The justices debated yesterday whether religious school administrations are liable to determine if employees are considered ministers. The schools have argued the case using the “ministerial exception,” which prohibits ministers from suing religious groups on the grounds of employment discrimination.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked Eric Rassbach, attorney for the respondents, “Who among the religious schools’ employees, who among them are not ministers?… You do not have to be Catholic to be a fifth grade teacher? How can a Jewish teacher be required to model Catholic faith? How can a Jewish teacher be a Catholic minister?”

Rassbach responded that “anyone who is not performing important religious functions” but is employed by a religious organization should not be considered to be a minister. Rassbach cited the 2013 case Davis v. Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, which centered around claims by a facilities management staffer at the congregation, Victor Davis, that he was terminated without just cause. A Maryland district court ruled that the extent of Davis’s religious teachings only included instructing students about the construction and significance of a sukkah, and ultimately ruled in favor of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

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