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Christian School’s Lawsuit May Test Supreme Court’s Religious Freedom Ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Case

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by Publius
Posted January 30, 2013, 10:02 AM

The Associated Press reports:

A lawsuit by a Southern California Christian school against two former teachers who refused to provide proof of their faith could pose one of the first court tests of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on religious freedom.

A legal expert said last year's ruling that religious workers can't sue for job discrimination never specified whether that includes teachers at religious schools.

Calvary Chapel of Thousand Oaks purchased Little Oaks School in 2009, and leaders told employees last year that they would need to provide a statement of faith and a reference from a pastor to renew their contracts.

The two teachers lost their jobs after refusing to provide the documents. After they threatened litigation, school leaders filed their own lawsuit in federal court in Ventura.

James A. Sonne, director of the Religious Liberty Clinic and a lecturer in law at Stanford University Law School, noted that the dispute comes just a year after the high court's ruling in the case of the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich., which holds that religious workers can't sue for job discrimination.

The court refused to specify in that ruling what constituted a religious worker, leaving teachers uncertain of their status under the law.

Sonne said the question remains whether teachers are performing "ministerial duties."

"Churches have First Amendment rights to choose their ministers," Sonne said. "The question is how does that apply outside the liturgical setting? The area where that will be played out is in the religious school context."

The school and its owner say their right to hire teachers who share their beliefs is protected by the California Constitution, the U.S. Constitution's right of the free exercise of religion, and civil rights laws.

The school is incorporated as a for-profit entity, but church leaders said the school is operated not as a profit-generating entity but as a spiritual arm of the church. About 130 students in preschool through fifth grade are taught there.

The teachers, Lynda Serrano and Mary Ellen Guevara, are citing the state's Fair Employment and Housing Act, which prohibits religious discrimination with exemptions that do not include for-profit religious groups.

Sonne said a constitutional ruling under federal law would most likely trump a state provision, which may be the reason the church filed in federal court. . . .

In the March 2012 edition of Engage, the journal of FedSoc's practice groups, Professor Carl H. Esbeck published a relevant article titled "A Religious Organization's Autonomy in Matters of Self-Governance: Hosanna-Tabor and the First Amendment." You can read it here.

 

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