Coulee Catholic: Of Loopholes and Legislating

Wednesday, in a case called Coulee Catholic Schools v. Labor and Industry Review Commission, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the “ministerial exception” to state laws prohibiting employment discrimination applied to a teacher in a Catholic grade school. As a result, the teacher’s claim against the school for age discrimination must be dismissed.

There a few points worth making. First, it is inaccurate and misleading to call the decision, which was written by Justice Michael Gableman and joined by Justices Prosser, Roggensack and Ziegler, “legislating from the bench.” Although this exception is not spelled out in the applicable statute, it is fairly implied from the free exercise clause of the First Amendment and the freedom of conscience clause in Article I, sec. 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution. In fact, courts everywhere recognize it and it is consistent with a general reluctance on the part of courts to examine the internal decision making of religious organizations on matters that implicate the organization’s religious mission and precepts. To determine whether the plaintiff in this case was terminated due to her age, an administrative agency or court would have to examine the school’s decision in light of its religious mission and that would lead to state evaluation of religious judgments.

Second, it is also unfair to say that the Court found a “loophole,” although I can see that there is some poetic justice in the charge for critics of Gableman campaign ads that used that term in connection with certain of the Court’s criminal law decisions. 

People use the term “loophole” in connection with judicial decisions to imply that the principle of decision is either unimportant or not intended for the purpose to which it has been put. Constitutional guarantees, whether in the criminal law or religious freedom context, are never unimportant and often the question of whether they are or are not intended in the way that the Court has used them is precisely the issue before the Court. I may believe that the Court has misinterpreted constitutional protections for criminal defendants, but it is not helpful to think about loopholes. Although the use of that term in campaign literature might communicate my substantive conclusion, it really doesn’t help me make it.

Third, it is also wrong to suggest that the Court modified its own precedent or preferred the decisions of courts from other jurisdictions to its own. There was no controlling state Supreme Court precedent on the issue. There was a Court of Appeals decision that is not consistent with the method adopted by the Court but that is hardly binding on the Supreme Court. What the Court did was adopt a “functional analysis” approach to the ministerial exception asking whether the duties of the employee is questions are sufficiently “important or closely linked” to “the fundamental [religious] mission of [the] organization.” This test is in distinction to the test used by most courts which is to ask whether the employee’s “primary duties” are religious.

Fourth, it would be fair to say that the Court’s decision demonstrates at least a favorable nod in the direction of New Federalism, i.e., the idea that state constitutional provisions might be interpreted differently than parallel federal provisions. Although it does not appear that the Court’s decision turns on that (and the federal and state provisions at issue here are not identically worded), it is unsurprising. Wisconsin has previously interpreted its freedom of conscience clause more broadly than the United States Supreme Court has interpreted the free exercise clause.

Fifth, Justice Crooks suggestion in dissent that the Court’s decision calls into question its prior decision in Jackson v. Benson, upholding the constitutionality of the school choice program seems rather weak. While Coulee Catholic certainly recognizes the idea that religion is suffused throughout the curriculum of at least certain religious schools, Jackson was not based on any assumption to the contrary and the fact that religious schools are religious does not mean that vouchers to students attending those schools violate the Establisment Clause. In fact, the Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris held that it does not. Thus Jackson could be in trouble only if the state Supreme Court were to hold that the state constitution’s anti-establishment principle is somehow broader than that of the First Amendment. That has not traditionally been the view of the state Supreme Court.

Justice Crooks seems to think that the idea that the state may not interfere with what is “important or closely linked” to the religious mission of schools calls into question a provision in the school choice program requiring that students be permitted to “opt out” of religious activities (as opposed to subjects that are secular, even if taught in service of the school’s religious mission). Perhaps it does. But there is little reason to believe that the outcome in Jackson turned on the opt-out provision. In addition, while Coulee Catholic certainly suggests the rather obvious notion that the state could not compel religious schools to permit students to opt out of religious activities, it is far from clear that such a requirement could not be a condition of state vouchers. That gets us into messy law regarding, among other things, unconstitutional conditions and, suffice it to say, the outcome is hazy.

Sixth, I think that the Court probably got the legal standard right. Even employees of religious organizations whose primary duties are not religious may play a sufficiently important role in their employer’s religious mission that decisions regarding their hiring or firing are inextricably tied up with that mission such that the state could not examine these decisions without having to assess religious judgments.


Cross posted at Shark and Shepherd

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