Catholic school fired teacher after she got breast cancer

Is a fifth grade teacher at a Catholic school a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception? Court says “No” 2-1.

Catholic school fired teacher after she got breast cancer and asked for time off. Is she a minister? Part of a series - Employment Law Case of the Week - by Ross Runkel.

Kristen Biel was fired from her fifth grade teaching position at a Catholic school after she told her employer that she had breast cancer and would need to miss work to undergo chemotherapy. The trial court granted summary judgment to the employer on the ground that the 1st amendment's ministerial exception barred her claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The 9th Circuit reversed, 2-1. Biel v. St. James School (9th Cir 12/17/2018) [PDF]

The court applied the analysis in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC to conclude that, under the totality of the circumstances, Biel did not qualify as a "minister" for purposes of the ministerial exception.

  1. The school did not hold Biel out as a minister by suggesting to its community that she had special expertise in Church doctrine, values, or pedagogy beyond that of any practicing Catholic.

  2. Biel's title "Grade 5 Teacher" did not reflect any religious meaning. There was no religious component to her liberal studies degree or teaching credential, and the school had no religious requirements for her position.

  3. Nothing in the record indicates that Biel considered herself a minister or presented herself as one to the community. She described herself as a teacher and claimed no benefits available only to ministers.

  4. Biel taught lessons on the Catholic faith four days a week. She also incorporated religious themes and symbols into her overall classroom environment and curriculum, as the school required.

The DISSENT argued that Biel was "entrusted with teaching and conveying the tenets of the faith to the next generation." The substance reflected in her title and the important religious functions she performed outweigh her formal title and whether she held herself out as a minister.