Lawyers for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Trump administration will team up Monday to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out a suit filed by a fifth-grade teacher who was fired by a Catholic school in Torrance after she reported she had breast cancer and would need time off for surgery and chemotherapy.
Kristen Biel taught fifth grade at St. James Catholic school in Torrance when she told the principal, Sister Mary Margaret Kreuper, she had cancer and would need time off, the Los Angeles Times reported from Washington D.C. A few weeks later, Kreuper told her she could not return in the fall of 2014. Kreuper faulted her for a noisy classroom and said it would not be fair to the children to have two teachers that term as Biel took time off to recover.
“She came home in tears,” her husband, Darryl Biel, told The Times. “She had gotten so many notes from parents about how much she had done for their children. She was so hurt by what happened.”
Kristen Biel filed a federal lawsuit for disability discrimination based on her cancer diagnosis, according to The Times. She died last summer, shortly after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals cleared her suit to proceed.
Lawyers for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Trump administration will urge the Supreme Court Monday to throw out Biel’s suit, and a second similar action from a former teacher in Hermosa Beach, and rule that the so-called “ministerial exception” shields the schools from such legal action, The Times reported.
This exception, long recognized by judges but not written into law, holds that courts should not interfere with the decision of a church or other religious body on whether to hire or retain a minister, priest, rabbi or other spiritual leader. Now the high court will hear oral arguments on whether that exception extends broadly to include tens of thousands of teachers in religious schools, and potentially hundreds of thousands of other employees in church-run hospitals, colleges, charities and child-care centers.
Kristen Biel was fired last year. The issue is whether she was like a minister and subject to firing by the the principal for any reason, including her illness. At issue is whether those teachers and other employees at religious institutions should be viewed as “ministers,” allowing religious schools to hire and fire them at will, bypassing anti-discrimination laws that prevent basing such decisions on race, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation or other impermissible factors.
The St. James School has been in the headlines for other reasons. Kreuper, now retired, is one of the so-called gambling nuns, accused by church officials of stealing at least $500,000 from school bank accounts to finance trips to Las Vegas. No charges have been filed, but a criminal investigation is underway, according to Adrian Marquez Alarcon, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.
The Biel case is the latest in a campaign to expand religious-liberty rights. Last week, the high court weighed the Trump administration’s push to exempt employers who oppose birth control on religious or moral grounds from Obamacare rules requiring most health plans to offer no-cost contraceptives.
Lawyers for the Catholic schools argue that because Biel’s classroom duties included teaching a religion assignment for 30-40 minutes a day, four days a week, she was like a minister and subject to firing by the principal for any reason, including her illness.
“You can’t have government decide who teaches the faith,” said Eric C. Rassbach, a lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which stepped in to defend the Archdiocese when the case reached the 9th Circuit, The Times reported.
The high court will not decide whether the teachers were victims of illegal discrimination but only whether they can proceed with their suits and try to prove their claims.
Darryl Biel said he will listen to the audio broadcast of the arguments, which begin at 7 a.m Pacific time Monday
“I’m really disappointed with the archdiocese for what they put her through,” he told The Times, adding that his wife was determined to seek justice. “She made me promise to see this through.”
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