Agudath Israel Asks US Supreme Court To Protect The Autonomy Of Religious Institutions

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Agudath Israel of America, together with the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, has filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief asking the United States Supreme Court to hear a case involving whether a professor at a religious college, who performed religious duties, is considered a “minister.” Ministers’ employment falls under what is called the “ministerial exemption,” which protects religious institutions from lawsuits from their ministerial employees about employment decisions. The exemption is designed to maintain the autonomy of religious institutions, and avoid government entanglement with religion, which would violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The brief in this case, Gordon College v. Margaret DeWeese Boyd, argues that under the Supreme Court’s definition of the ministerial exception, religious schools must have the freedom to select teachers whose beliefs and conduct conforms to the religious message the schools seek to convey to their students.

But in this case, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts limited the ministerial exception to those teachers who perform “liturgical” functions, such as leading prayer services, which is a very limited definition, excluding many teachers who may teach religious subjects or convey religious messages. This definition also discriminates against those religions which define ministerial functions more broadly than just those who lead prayer services. Urging the Supreme Court to review the case, the Jewish groups’ brief argues that the courts should defer to a religious organization’s own good-faith identification of who are ministers.

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, stated, “We hope that the Supreme Court agrees to hear this case and rule, as it has in previous cases, that the ministerial exception should be broadly defined, thus protecting the autonomy of religious schools in their employment decisions.”

Agudath Israel thanks the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, LLP for researching, drafting, and submitting this brief on our behalf and on behalf of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, and in particular Blaine H. Evanson, who served as Counsel of Record, and Vince Eisinger, who also worked on the brief.