Preschool teachers prevail in labor case against Los Angeles synagogue


WASHINGTON (JTA) — A California appellate court said a Los Angeles synagogue wasn’t exempt from labor complaints because it is a religious institution.

The ruling overturns a lower court ruling that had allowed a religious exemption for The Stephen S. Wise Temple; preschool teachers had complained that the synagogue failed to provide teachers with rest and meal breaks, as well as overtime, required by state law.

The synagogue 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.

Why it matters: A number of religious groups, including the Orthodox Union, filed amicus briefs on the temple’s behalf saying the government should not interfere with religious institutions’ decisions about their “ministerial employees,” which in this case includes teachers in religious schools. “Both church and state are better off when the state isn’t evaluating the internal religious affairs of a religious ministry,” Becket, a Christian legal affairs group, wrote in its brief.

The lower court had ruled in favor of the Reform temple in a case first brought in 2013 by the state’s labor commissioner.

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

The appeals court didn’t buy the argument that the teachers were ministerial employees.

“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.

The court interpreted the definition of “ministerial employee” outlined in a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.That case upheld the right of a religious school to fire a teacher despite federal protections for employees with disabilities. In Hosanna, the plaintiff performed specifically religious duties.

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.

What’s next: 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.

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