MADISON — The Wisconsin Supreme Court released its decision on July 21 on the matter of Coulee Catholic Schools vs. Labor and Industry Review Commission (LIRC), reversing the Court of Appeals’ decision and remanding the case back to the circuit court for dismissal.
This case involved the scope of the “ministerial exemption” for employment discrimination claims.
In a 4-3 decision, the majority found that the state was barred from investigating claims of employment discrimination under ss. 111.31 to 111.395 of the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act for those employees whose positions are important and closely linked to the religious missions of a religious organization.
Details of case
Jim Birnbaum, attorney for the Diocese of La Crosse, reviewed the pertinent details of the case and the majority opinion in a statement released by the the Diocese of La Crosse. The statement said the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the state and federal governments “violate a religious school’s federal and state free exercise constitutional rights by attempting to apply and enforce the age discrimination laws to ‘ministerial employees of religious organizations.’”
This case involved a Catholic elementary school teacher, Wendy Ostlund, who, among other things, taught religion, significantly engaged in religious exercises of the Roman Catholic Church, and incorporated religion into all subjects that she taught.
The court concluded: “We conclude that both the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United State Constitution and the Freedom of Conscience Clauses in Article I, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution preclude employment discrimination claims under §§ 111.31 to 111.395 of the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act for employees whose positions are important and closely linked to the religious mission of a religious organization . . . Therefore, Ostlund’s age discrimination claim under the WFEA unconstitutionally impinges upon her employer’s right to religious freedom.”
In the 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court adopted a “functional analysis” approach in determining whether an employment position was important and closely linked to the religious mission of a religious organization and therefore ministerial. A careful review of the specific facts is required in making those determinations.
The court based its decision on the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution. In so holding, the court stated: “The Wisconsin Constitution, with its specific and expansive language, provides much broader protections for religious liberty than the First Amendment.”
Said position was ‘ministerial’
This case involved Coulee Catholic Schools, in the Diocese of La Crosse, arising out of the need to reduce staff due to school closings. Ostlund, a 53-year-old elementary school teacher selected for lay-off, sued Coulee Catholic Schools, claiming she was discriminated against on the basis of age. The Equal Rights Division found No Probable Cause because eight of the 10 teachers retained were over 40 years old, including one older than the complainant.
Coulee Catholic Schools challenged the right of the Equal Rights Division to attempt to enforce the age discrimination provisions of the Wisconsin Fair Employment Practices Act on the basis that the elementary school teaching position at issue was “ministerial” and protected from action by the Constitution. The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed.