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Supreme Court decision on religious employment will impact organizations, schools

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LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) - The United States Supreme Court is expected to make a ruling next week on two cases regarding religious employment.

These cases stem from two California teachers suing their schools for discrimination after they were fired or did not have their contract renewed.

Agnes Morrissey-Berru believes age was a factor in her termination. Kristen Biel believed the school did not renew her contract because she was diagnosed with breast cancer and requested time off. She has since died.

Western Wisconsin is home to several religious employers like Aquinas Schools and Luther High School for example.

Attorney Joe Veenstra of Johns, Flaherty, & Collins, SC said comes down to a term called 'ministerial exception' which allows religious employers to defy anti-discrimination laws and count certain employees as ministers. The principle is rooted in the first amendment under the free exercise clause which halts the government’s interference on church affairs.

“The rule right now is, 'What is essentially the religious function? Do they have a religious title? Are there religious requirements for the position? What does the school call them, and what do they refer to themselves as?'" said Veenstra. "It’s a little loosey-goosey, and sometimes these laws are that way."

The Supreme Court is contemplating which employees at a religious organization should qualify for the ministerial exception and which employees should not. This all depends on how closely their work is related to the mission of the organization.

“I think the question will come down to what kind of language they use to describe the nature of the type of employment or work that the person does and how much it is mingled in with the religious doctrine of the employer," said Veenstra.

Back in 2002, a teacher at St. Patrick’s in Onalaska sued for age discrimination after they decided not to renew her contract. The District 4 Court of Appeals upheld the original decision to side with the teacher stating that ministerial exception did not extend to teachers. The case went to the Wisconsin Supreme Court which sided with the school. Their decision said her work incorporated the missions and teachings of the religion.

The decision is expected to come next week and Veenstra said that the court could split it up by case instead of producing an ultimate ruling.

WXOW News 19 reached out to both Aquinas and Luther High School, but they either declined to comment or did not get back to us in time for the story.

Mike Beiermeister

WXOW Weekend Anchor and Reporter

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