Wisconsin Court Upholds Religious School Hiring Bias

Religious schools have the constitutional right to hire and fire based on theological grounds, according to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.


In a 4-3 decision, the court said teachers and other staff who inculcate religion at parochial schools are not protected by Wisconsin anti-discrimination laws, dismissing an age-discrimination complaint filed by first-grade Catholic school teacher Wendy Ostlund.


In the past, courts had exempted from anti-discrimination laws only religious leaders such as ordained clergy and ministers. But Justice Michael Gableman said the exemption should extend to all employees whose positions are closely linked to the religious mission of their employers. Allowing the court to interfere with employment decisions involving religious leaders violates the state and U.S. constitutional protections for religions, declared the majority.


“It is obvious that Ostlund’s role was of high importance and closely linked to the mission of the school – the inculcation of a Christ-centered concept of life,” Gableman wrote. “She was an important instrument in a faith-based organization’s efforts to pass on its faith to the next generation.”


The July 21 decision overturns an administrative law judge, a trial court and an appeals court that all ruled the teacher’s complaint could move forward.


Justice Patrick Crooks, who wrote the dissent, said the decision “extends a free pass to religious schools to discriminate against their lay employees.”


Crooks also brought into question the legality of the Milwaukee school voucher program. If religious schools don’t have to comply with non-discrimination laws and if most teachers offer religious instruction, he said, state aid violates the separation of church and state. (Coulee Catholic Schools v. Labor and Industry Review Commission)