|First, Kristen Biel learned she had breast cancer. Then, after she told the Catholic school where she taught that she’d need time off for treatment, she learned her teaching contract wouldn’t be renewed.
“She was devastated,” said her husband Darryl. “She came in the house just bawling uncontrollably.”
Biel died last year at age 54 after a five-year battle with breast cancer. On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a disability discrimination lawsuit she filed against her former employer, St. James Catholic School in Torrance, California.
A judge initially sided with the school and halted the lawsuit, but an appeals court disagreed and said it could go forward. The school, with the support of the Trump administration, is challenging that decision, telling the Supreme Court that the dispute doesn’t belong in court.
The case is one of 10 the high court is hearing arguments in by telephone because of the coronavirus pandemic. The justices heard arguments in four cases this week. Next week includes Biel’s case as well as high-profile fights over President Donald Trump’s financial records and whether presidential electors have to cast their Electoral College ballots for the candidate who wins the popular vote in their state.
Biel’s lawsuit is one of two cases being heard together that involves the same issue: the “ministerial exception” that exempts religious employers from certain employment discrimination lawsuits.
The Supreme Court recognized in a unanimous 2012 decision that the Constitution prevents ministers from suing their churches for employment discrimination. But it specifically avoided giving a rigid test for who should count as a minister.
Now the Supreme Court will decide whether Biel, and another former teacher who sued a different Catholic school for age discrimination, count as ministers barred from suing. Both Biel and the other teacher, Agnes Morrissey-Berru, taught religion, among other subjects.
Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for Biel and Morrissey-Berru, says if his clients lose, it could have “innumerable, cascading consequences” on employees of religious institutions. He’s argued employment law protections could be denied to nurses at religiously affiliated hospitals, counselors at religious summer camps, and cooks and administrators in social services centers.