Monday, December 17, 2018

Biel v. St. James School (9th Cir. - Dec. 17, 2018)

The Ninth Circuit represents itself well in its sole opinion from today.  Since Judge Friedland's opinion (joined by Judge Watford) is much more persuasive than the dissent from Judge Fisher (sitting by designation from the Third Circuit).

The question is whether the defendants get to take advantage of the "ministerial exception" to justify their decision to fire a substitute teacher at a Catholic school who got canned when she told the school that she had breast cancer and would need to take time off to undergo chemotherapy.  (The school's response was to tell her that she was fired because, inter alia, “it was not fair . . . to have two teachers for the children during the school year.”  Nice.)

Judge Friedland summarizes some of the basic facts about the fired teacher in a easily understood fashion that helps make clear why the ministerial exception doesn't apply:

"After graduating in 2009, Biel worked at two tutoring companies and as a substitute teacher at several public and private schools. St. James, a Roman Catholic parish school within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, hired Biel in March 2013 as a long-term substitute teacher. At the end of that school year, St. James’s principal hired Biel as the school’s full-time fifth grade teacher. Biel is herself Catholic, and St. James prefers to hire Catholic teachers, but being Catholic is not a requirement for teaching positions at St. James. Biel had no training in Catholic pedagogy at the time she was hired. Her only such training was during her tenure at St. James: a single half-day conference where topics ranged from the incorporation of religious themes into lesson plans to techniques for teaching art classes.

Biel taught the fifth graders at St. James all their academic subjects. Among these was a standard religion curriculum that she taught for about thirty minutes a day, four days a week, using a workbook on the Catholic faith prescribed by the school administration. Biel also joined her students in twice-daily prayers but did not lead them; that responsibility fell to student prayer leaders. She likewise attended a school-wide monthly Mass where her sole responsibility was to keep her class quiet and orderly."

The Third Circuit's Judge Fisher would hold that the ministerial exception would apply to these facts, but to me, the majority opinion wins the battle fairly clearly.

There might well be some judges on the Ninth Circuit who would see things the same way as Judge Fisher.  But I don't think they're a majority.  Or anywhere near.