Appeals court overturns temple’s religious exemption in preschool teachers’ labor case

Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A California appellate court overturned a lower court ruling that had allowed a religious exemption for a Los Angeles temple in a labor complaint brought on behalf of its preschool teachers.

The Stephen S. Wise Temple had argued that its preschool teachers were subject to the “ministerial exception,” which keeps the government from interfering in the relationship between a place of worship and its ministerial staff.

The lower court had ruled in favor of the Reform temple in a case first brought in 2013 by the state’s labor commissioner, who said the synagogue failed to provide teachers with rest and meal breaks, as well as overtime, required by state law.

In a March 8 ruling that was made public Monday, a three-judge panel of California’s Court of Appeal unanimously overturned the ruling.

“Although the Temple’s preschool curriculum has both secular and religious content, its teachers are not required to have any formal Jewish education, to be knowledgeable about Jewish belief and practice, or to adhere to the Temple’s theology,” said the ruling, which also noted that some of the teachers were not Jewish.

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The court based its assessment on the tests of what constitutes a “ministerial employee” outlined in a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which upheld the right of a religious school to fire a teacher because of her disability. In Hosanna, the plaintiff performed specifically religious duties.

A number of religious groups, including the Orthodox Union, filed amicus briefs on the temple’s behalf. The O.U.’s Washington director, Nathan Diament, told JTA that his group was “disappointed” in the decision and saw it as “misreading” the Hosanna ruling.

Diament said he hoped that the federal U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th District, which is considering a similar case involving a Catholic school, would effectively reverse the state court’s ruling. Otherwise, he said, the decisions would “surely” be reviewed by the Supreme Court.