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Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears: Four Trump Circuit Judges Try to Allow Religious School to Fire Employee Because of Breast Cancer

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Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears: Four Trump Circuit Judges Try to Allow Religious School to Fire Employee Because of Breast Cancer
Back of 1st grade classroom. Jinego Elementary School.

“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. 

Four Trump judges on the Ninth Circuit, along with five other Republican appointees, dissented from a decision in Biel v. St. James School not to have a larger panel of the full court rehear a decision that allowed a teacher to pursue a claim that a religious school improperly fired her because she had breast cancer. The dissent was written by Trump judge Ryan Nelson.

Kristin Biel was a fifth-grade teacher at St. James Catholic School in Los Angeles. After she notified the school that she had breast cancer and needed to take time off to undergo chemotherapy, the school fired her, without even exploring any possible accommodations. She sued the school for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits employment discrimination based on disability.

St. James claimed that the lawsuit should be dismissed without trial because it was immune from liability under the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception,” which exempts religious employers from such anti-discrimination laws if employees are deemed ministers, and the district court agreed. But a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed and allowed her to proceed with her claim.

As the majority of the three-judge panel explained, the Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment does protect the right of religious organizations to “select their own leaders” and that there is thus a “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws. But that does not mean that all of a religious organization’s employees are considered ministers. Instead, the court concluded, the ministerial exception did not apply to Biel under the “totality of circumstances” standard applied by the Supreme Court. Specifically, unlike in another case decided by the Supreme Court, Biel was not held out as a minister and did not claim that she was one, her title and previous experience did not reflect “ministerial substance and training,” she had a “limited” role in teaching religion, and she did not “teach, lead or plan” school prayer.

When St. James tried to get the full Ninth Circuit to rehear the case, the majority disagreed. But Judge Nelson wrote a strongly worded dissent, joined by Trump judges Bennett, Bade, and Collins plus five other Republican-appointed judges. Nelson claimed that the court was showing improper “hostility towards religion” and turning a “blind eye” to religious freedom. But as the panel decision pointed out, its ruling leaves religious organizations free to choose their own leaders while protecting the rights of employees like Biel to be free from discrimination. Nelson and the other dissenters would not.


Americans with Disabilities Act, Confirmed Judges Confirmed Fears, Daniel Collins, disability rights, Employment Discrimination, First Amendment, Mark Bennett, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, religious exemptions, Religious Freedom, Ryan Nelson