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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Thanks, Justice Alito

The Supreme Court gives religious schools a clear and decisive victory

Every now and then—and sometimes when the swamps of Washington seem most impenetrable—a notably bright light dawns. That happened earlier this month when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled convincingly in favor of religious liberty for the nation’s schools.

First, a brief summary of the case. Two elementary Catholic schools in California had chosen not to renew the contracts of two fifth grade teachers, judged by their administrators to be less than effective in carrying out the schools’ religious goals. The teachers sued, and ultimately the state of California joined in their complaint, charging that the teachers’ civil rights had been abridged. Along the way, several lower courts agreed with the teachers, and the case ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Over the last couple of years, the case has attracted growing attention because of its implications not just for the Catholic schools involved, but for all kinds of nonpublic religious schools—including colleges and even theological seminaries. What might happen if the government were given an increasingly intrusive role in hiring and firing faculty at various kinds of religious schools?

Waiting for an answer in recent months, schools with religious affiliations displayed guarded optimism that such a relationship might protect their independence from government intrusion. A bit more iffy had been the place of independent schools with strong religious identities. Lawyers for both types of schools argued “that both the church and state are better off when the government doesn’t entangle itself in the internal religious decisions of religious groups about who best teaches the faith to the next generation.”

“The religious education of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools.”

The Supreme Court was neither ambiguous nor guarded in its answer. Government bureaucrats, the court said (in my loose personal translation), have no business telling schools like those in California who is qualified, and who isn’t, to teach their religion classes. Nor should the government consider that it’s their job to decide which schools are religious and which aren’t. Or which subjects in the curriculum are religious and which aren’t. 

Trying to keep track of the case in recent months, I had become a pessimist. I thought the court, at best, might rule that the Catholic schools’ close ties to an organization that through the years had stressed good education had earned them a little nostalgia-based protection. But Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, displayed his wonderfully clear mind when he stressed that “educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission” of religious schools.

In other words, it wasn’t just organizational relationships that earned “religious liberty” for these schools; it was, much more than that, the deeply held worldview convictions of their hearts. Such convictions, Alito suggested repeatedly throughout his opinion, should be honored regardless of the affiliation of the school (or other organization) and regardless of the subject matter. 

Elsewhere, Alito said, “The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission.”

Such clarity made an optimist of me. And it must have been part of what attracted two traditionally liberal justices to Alito’s position—providing the 7-2 winning combination of very diverse justices. That is likely to produce a much more durable precedent for Alito’s successors in years to come.