Orthodox Jewish Organizati​ons Ask Supreme Court Not To Interfere With Religious Liberties Of Religious Schools

(Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011)

An impressive array of Orthodox Jewish organizations and Rabbinical Courts from across the United States has filed an Amicus Curiae (“friend of the court”) Brief with the United States Supreme Court, in which they advocated that controversies between religious institutions and their present or former employees should be considered and determined by religious authorities applying the principles that govern the faith, such as a Beth Din (“Rabbinical Court”).

At the center of the debate in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the “ministerial exception,” which bars secular courts from presiding over employment-related lawsuits against religious organizations by employees who perform religious functions.  The Supreme Court will consider whether the “ministerial exception” extends to a teacher at a religious school who is involved in both the secular curriculum and the religious aspects of the school.

The brief was filed by The National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (“COLPA”), which is an organization of volunteer lawyers that advocates the position of the Orthodox Jewish community on legal issues affecting religious rights and liberties in the United States.  COLPA has filed amicus briefs in the Supreme Court of the United States in 28 cases since 1968.

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COLPA filed the brief on behalf of Agudath Israel of America, National Council of Young Israel, Agudas Harabonim of the United States and Canada, Rabbinical Alliance of America, Torah Umesorah, Baltimore Bais Din, Beth Din of the Rabbinical Council of California, Boston Rabbinical Court of Justice, Kehilla Bais Din of Los Angeles, Maysharim Bais Din of Lakewood, and Bais Din Tzedek U’Mishpat of New York.

In their brief, the organizations assert that every Jewish employee hired by a religious school who performs any religious function should be covered by the “ministerial exception,” whether it is a Rabbi or a teacher. They maintain that disputes involving a Jewish employee of a religious school who performs any religious duty should be heard by a Beth Din, rather than having a secular court become involved in the matter and attempt to ascertain the employee’s specific role in the school relative to the religious components of the institution.

“The ‘ministerial exception’ that is being defined in this case should, in the view of these amici, be applied broadly to withdraw from the jurisdiction of secular courts litigation that could and should be decided in accordance with religious guidelines by religious authorities,” the organizations wrote in their brief to the court.  “This principle extends beyond employment controversies with employees whose ‘primary duties’ are religious.  It includes all claims made by or against any employee whose duties relate in any manner to the religious doctrine or teaching of his or her employer, particularly if, as is true of Jewish institutions, a meaningful internal religious remedy is available to the plaintiff.”

In their amicus brief, the Orthodox Jewish organizations describe for the Supreme Court a number of relevant propositions of Jewish Law that affect the resolution of employment-related controversies involving Jewish religious institutions and Jewish employees.

“Courts should not be permitted to substitute their superficial understanding of religious doctrine for more learned evaluations by scholars committed to observance of religious precepts,” concluded the organizations in their brief.

“The Orthodox Jewish community has a particularly strong interest in insuring that disputes between Jewish institutions and their Jewish employees be resolved according to Jewish Law by rabbinical courts (Batei Din) rather than by secular courts,” said Nathan Lewin, Esq. of Lewin & Lewin, LLP, who authored the brief.  “It is gratifying that COLPA (The National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs) was able to gather such a broad coalition of Orthodox groups and rabbinical courts so that we can present to the Supreme Court the unique Jewish perspective on this important issue.”

“Rabbinical courts throughout the United States are qualified to arbitrate these issues without the intervention of the secular judicial system,” said Shlomo Z. Mostofsky, Esq., the President of the National Council of Young Israel.  “A dilution of the “ministerial exception’ will also dilute our institutions’ right to freedom of religion under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

“The right to autonomy and internal governance is integral to the religious liberty of Jewish institutions,” said Rabbi David Zwiebel, Esq., the Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America.  “Such independence allows our institutions to remain true to their beliefs and mission, and ultimately enhances their ability to serve our community.”

(YWN Desk – NYC)

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2 Comments

  1. torahtotty says:

    is this about court interference in religious schools or religious school being sued for not paying their teachers in a timely manner or not paying them at all.
    it is a violation of both torah law and malchus medina not to pay your employees. A religious school teacher is not a ministerial figure they are teachers plane and simple who expect to be paid at the end of the week.
    So does anybody know what the facts are?

  2. rabbiofberlin says:

    This article is misleading. The case before the Supreme Court will hinge on whether religious employers can discriminate agaisnt its employees. If the jewish schools do not want the courts to decide upon their obligations, all they have to do is write a contract that explicitly instructs the two parties to go to a Beth Din, with clear rules. In that case, these contractual agreements will never be questioned by the courts.
    In actuality, the ‘ministerial exception’ will surely be curtailed by the coming Supreme Court decision and it will be welcomed. For two long, religious institutions (Jewish and otherwise) have used this rule to avoid dealing fairly with their employees. Good riddance to this exception.

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