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Not content with firing staff for being gay, Catholic schools are now trying to use ‘religious liberty’ to sack teachers who have cancer

Lily Wakefield May 11, 2020
Catholic school

Kristen Biel, who passed away from breast cancer last year, with her husband. (Darryl Biel/ Facebook)

As Catholic schools across the US use religious liberty defences to fire LGBT+ teachers, one school in California is using the same defence to fire a teacher because she had cancer.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Kristen Biel was a fifth grade teacher at St James Catholic school in Torrance, California, and in 2014 she told the school’s principal, sister Mary Margaret Kreuper, that she had breast cancer.

She said she would need time off for surgery and chemotherapy, but a few weeks later she was told that she could not return to her job the next school year.

Her husband, Darryl, said: “She came home in tears. She had gotten so many notes from parents about how much she had done for their children. She was so hurt by what happened.”

Biel filed a lawsuit for disability discrimination, and in 2019 US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals finally allowed her lawsuit to proceed. Tragically, she died shortly afterwards.

White House asks Supreme Court to throw out late teacher’s discrimination lawsuit.

Now, the Trump administration and the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles are asking the Supreme Court to throw out her lawsuit, arguing that a “ministerial exception” means that the school cannot be sued for discrimination.

But Biel’s husband is determined to see justice for his late wife.

“I’m really disappointed with the archdiocese for what they put her through,’ he said. “She made me promise to see this through.”

A “ministerial exception” is not written into law, but is often recognised by judges. It means that the courts should not interfere with the employment of religious leaders by religious institutions.

If an employee is considered a minister, then the religious body they belong to can hire or fire them for any reason, including their race, religion, disability or sexual orientation, and bypass any state or federal anti-discrimination laws.

‘Teachers aren’t ministers’

The issue the Supreme Court must decide on is whether teachers at religious schools can be considered ministers. Lawyers for St James argue that Biel was a minister because she taught a religion assignment for 30 to 40 minutes per day, four days a week.

The Trump administration will argue on Monday that “the ministerial exception should apply to any employee who preaches a church’s beliefs, teaches its faith, or carries out its religious mission”.

Arguing for Biel and another teacher fired by a Los Angeles Catholic school because of her age, Stanford law professor Jeffrey Fisher said: “Lay teachers are not ministers.

“While a slice of their classroom time involved instruction about the Catholic religion, [the two teachers] performed this duty strictly from workbooks, not as preachers of the faith. And they spent the overwhelming majority of their time teaching secular subjects.”

Last year, the US Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest letter siding with an archbishop’s decision to fire a gay teacher from a Catholic school, arguing that the courts “cannot entangle themselves in questions of religious law”.

 

More: breast cancer, California, Catholic, Education, Los Angeles, ministerial exception, religious liberty, school, St James, Torrance, trump administration

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