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EPISODE#219
OC CATHOLIC RADIO: DR ERIN BARISANO GIVES US AN UPDATE ON CATHOLIC EDUCATION IN THE DIOCESE OF ORANGE

Host Rick Howick interviews guests on a variety of topics.

On this week’s show, Rick welcomes Dr. Erin Barisano back to the program. Dr. Barisano is the Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Orange.

Our topic of discussion today will center on the state of Catholic education in Orange County. How are things looking as we embark on this new year of 2021?

Listen in, and be encouraged!

 

 

 

 

Originally broadcast on 1/16/21

 

WHEN THE SAINTS–IN–THE–MAKING CAME MARCHING IN

The children who attend St. John the Baptist Catholic School happily anticipated All Saints Day by dressing up as their favorite saints on Friday, Oct 30.  

Early in the morning the boys and girls arrived in full regalia, but also ready to study. Then they went to their classes where they were visited by costume adjudicators (a team comprised of SJB Pastor Fr. Augustine, School Rector Fr. Damien, and School Principal Mrs. Paula Viles). Best “saint” in each classroom was a combination of best costume + knowledge about the saint being depicted.  

 Following lunch they put on the 2020 (socially distanced) version of a long-standing SJB school tradition – the awesome Parade of the Saints, accompanied by, what else, “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In!” 

 

TOOLS FOR SCHOOLS

Some of the silver linings that have emerged as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic can be found in the new technology-based tools that schools and educators are using to enhance the way they deliver curriculum to their students.  

A new offering this school year from the Diocese of Orange is St. Polycarp Online Catholic Academy, an education model that provides fully accredited daily online live instruction to students whose families feel more comfortable completing the school year from home. 

“We knew that some of our families were not going to be comfortable going back to school at all, and we wanted to make sure we had a place for them and that Catholic school was available and affordable for them,” says Diocese of Orange Catholic Schools Director of Educational Programs, Dr. Brad Snyder. 

The goal was to re-imagine the St. Polycarp school site, which had recent struggles with enrollment, and provide a new way to support the rapidly changing needs of the community through Catholic education. 

Launched on Sept. 8, St. Polycarp is led by Principal Mary Flock and the nine teachers on staff as they teach 180 students across grades K-8th from throughout Orange County and into Riverside and Temecula. 

A typical school day at St. Polycarp begins with prayer and then a half day of online instruction by the teachers from the Stanton campus classrooms in English, language arts, math, religion, social studies and science via Zoom and Canvas, an education platform. After a lunch break, the students reconvene online for teachers’ office hours and a variety of electives such as music, art and cooking.  

Flock and her team have also worked hard to create a community among the families of St. Polycarp through weekly virtual Mass and rosary ceremonies, online book fairs and annual events such as Red Ribbon Week. Student leaders from the school’s junior high participate in student council and organize service projects. 

“It’s not just about the academic piece,” says Flock. “We’re really trying very hard to keep the socialization and build community. It’s been a great experience.” 

Snyder says the diocese will continue to evaluate the demand for the St. Polycarp format, but in the short term, both he and Flock see students who are thriving and have adapted well to socializing and building an online community.  

“This is a really good opportunity to meet the students where they’re at and teach them good digital citizenship,” says Flock. “That lesson is coming across for our students.” 

Some of the Orange County Catholic elementary school sites have offered an option for their students to remain online for the duration of the school year while attending class synchronously with their in-person classmates. 

At St. Bonaventure Catholic School, Swivl Robot technology, purchased through a donation, allows for the school’s 75 students who are remote this year to be connected to their peers through integrated classrooms that combine a microphone tracking system with Zoom and Smart Boards.  

For third grade teacher Heather Swienton, projecting her Zoom screen onto her Smart Board means that her two students learning from home can hear, see and interact with their classmates during daily instruction. 

“Of course there is a learning curve, as with anything,” says Swienton. “But they are adapting really well. They’re just so excited.” 

Along with Google Classroom, Swienton also utilizes apps such as Flipgrid, ChatterPix, Kahoot and Quizlet to provide new ways for her students to create, present and learn. 

St. Bonaventure’s junior high science teacher, Sarah McGuire, has closer to a 1-to-1 ratio of online and in-person students and is utilizing the Swivl Robot technology to facilitate online simulations for labs. The technology that both McGuire and Swienton have added to their “teaching toolboxes” has turned a challenging year into one of growth as educators and as a school family. 

“Having [the students] all together has been a huge blessing,” says McGuire. “The best thing that has come from having the Swivl in the classroom is creating that sense of community.” 

WELLNESS IN THE CLASSROOM

In a time when terms such as Zoom and online instruction dominate the education conversation, a newer subject has been emerging in recent weeks that spotlights another aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic that is having a noticeable impact on children and adolescents, even more so than the virus itself – the issue of social and emotional wellness.  

A story that appeared in TIME magazine’s August 3, 2020 issue referenced a study published in JAMA Pediatrics on a sample group of 2,330 school children in the Hubei province of China, where the pandemic originated. After one month of lock down, 22.6% of the children reported depression symptoms, while 18.9% said they experienced anxiety. 

When schools in the United States transitioned to distance learning last March, a significant part of most children’s normal routine was upended. And as the weeks of physical separation from teachers, friends and classmates turned into months, many kids felt the mental effects. 

“We were all sad about it,” says St. Norbert Catholic School 8th grader Catie Allen. “It was difficult at first, and the teachers were trying to adjust, just as we were.” 

St. Bonaventure Catholic School 8th grader Clara Wickwire says she was surprised at how quickly this significant change came about. 

“I was kind of sad that our year was all of a sudden interrupted,” says Wickwire. “We were completely isolated. We couldn’t see our friends or our teachers. We thought it would only be for two weeks, and turns out it was the rest of the year.” 

As the end of the school year blended into the summer months, many Orange County Catholic school families saw that while distance learning was mostly successful, their children were eager to safely return to campus. 

“It was the ‘touch and the feel’ of the classroom that they yearned for,” says St. Bonaventure parent, Molly Lalonde, who is mom to 8th grader Morgan, 6th grader Brooke and 2nd grader Tanner. “It made me realize how much recess and lunch time…and that social interaction was really important.” 

With the approval of a California Department of Health waiver to hold in-person instruction, TK – 6th graders at Orange County Catholic school sites returned to campus beginning September 8. Two weeks later, as Orange County COVID-19 numbers continued to stabilize, most 7th and 8th graders returned as well.  

Despite the addition of temperature checks, masks and social distancing, the students are thrilled to be back. Wickwire clearly remembers seeing the smiles in the eyes of her friends during her first day on campus in six months. 

“We’re really happy to be in person,” says Wickwire. “It makes such a difference. Part of our ‘normal’ [is] back.” 

Allen echoed similar sentiments. 

“When we heard we were coming back, we were pretty excited,” says Allen. “I feel school is [no longer] as lonely…or secluded.” 

Both 8th graders noticed an improvement in their focus and grades, and parents noticed a positive change in their children as well. Catie Allen’s mom, Jewell, works in a hospital setting, and while she was cautious about the return to St. Norbert’s campus, she has seen the mental health impact it has had on her daughter. 

“I noticed that she was so much happier to be back in person,” says Jewell Allen. “As a mom, you can see a difference in the little things.” 

Lalonde says her three kids are grateful to be back at St. Bonaventure and will no longer take for granted routines such as wearing backpacks or school supply shopping. 

“Their whole world opened up in the way they see school and appreciate school,” says Lalonde. “They feel they have a purpose.” 

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

On Sept. 8, Catholic elementary schools within the Diocese of Orange opened their campus doors for the 2020-2021 school year. Having secured waiver approval from the Orange County Health Care Agency, the schools were allowed to open for in-person instruction for grades TK-6th.  

Additionally, on Sept. 22 those same elementary campuses welcomed back their 7th and 8th graders, and their high school counterparts opened their doors as well for smaller cohorts of students. 

In a year that has been anything but typical, teachers, administrators and staff have been challenged to become more flexible and adaptable than ever before, oftentimes learning new technologies and expanding their roles to ensure a safe and productive learning environment. 

After the completion of the first week of school, Orange County Catholic school elementary teachers and principals were given the opportunity to share some thoughts on their return to campus and offer some insight as to lessons learned so far. 

The hope of the survey was to take the collective wisdom of those who are experiencing these unprecedented challenges and provide guidance and support across the diocese. 

“When we all come together with thoughts, ideas and reflections, that can enhance our whole system of schools,” says Mike Schabert, associate superintendent of Catholic Schools Marketing and Enrollment. “Our schools recognize that we are stronger together.” 

Answers to questions such as, “One thing I know now that I wish I had known before…” and, “After the first week, I am excited about…” ranged from technology issues and anxiety to resiliency and grace. 

St. Irenaeus Parish School Principal Monica Hayden’s responses included her discovery of new meanings for the word “responsibility,” as managing the difficulties of education amid Covid has expanded her role. 

“I knew that I would feel responsible, but I think that I’m learning how much responsibility I have,” says Hayden, “but also that there are others there to help me with that responsibility.” 

Hayden is encouraged by the joy she sees on the students’ faces in their return to in-person instruction, especially the school’s 7th and 8th graders, who are the heart of the St. Irenaeus campus. 

“The kids are so happy to be here,” says Hayden. “I think sometimes we over-think things, but the bottom line is they’re healthy, they’re safe, they’re protected as best we can and they’re learning.” 

St. Irenaeus is currently operating with approximately two-thirds of their student body on campus and one-third of students who have chosen to remain in distance learning for now. As such, teachers are working hard to provide the same robust learning environment for all children, whether learning at school or from home. 

Kindergarten teacher Elisa Liljeberg is facing several new logistics such as amplifying her voice through a mask, finding new ways to introduce songs and providing each child their own personal space in the classroom. Researching those who teach from virtual learning platforms full time alongside joining parent Facebook groups are just a few of the ways Liljeberg is adjusting her teaching style to meet the children’s needs. 

“We want to give them the essence of kindergarten,” says Liljeberg. “We just have to do it differently, and we have to adapt.” 

But above all, the 17-year teaching veteran reflected in her survey answers that maintaining a growth mindset and a positive internal voice are key. 

“The adversity we have already faced has made us feel like a team so quickly, faster than any other year,” says Liljeberg. “Without this struggle, we would not know how truly strong we are and how blessed we are to have each other.” 

JOURNEY OF FAITH

Perhaps now more than ever, academic success – as well as lasting faith formation – for students in the Diocese of Orange Catholic Schools depends on family members’ dedication in addition to the children’s hard work, say diocesan school leaders. 

“It takes the child, the parents, and the schools working together to support students in this journey,” says Mike Schabert, associate superintendent for marketing and enrollment. “I call it the three-legged stool. The families who want to take full advantage of the gifts our system and our schools offer know that it begins with faith formation efforts at home.” 

Parents who want to be proactive will encourage their children by engaging in the faith themselves, he notes, by reading spiritual books, listening to Catholic podcasts, becoming involved in parish life. “When that doesn’t happen, it is much more challenging for our students to take full advantage of the programs we offer.” 

The beauty of the Catholic schools is that even the largest are small communities where parents can communicate easily one-on-one with teachers, school counselors, and principals, notes Dr. Erin Barisano, superintendent of schools. 

“From a practical standpoint there is a greater probability of student success in having that direct access and line of accountability,” Dr. Barisano says. 

“Our schools do a wonderful job in providing opportunities for parents to grow in their faith themselves,” Schabert adds, through special Masses, school assignments, and other parish opportunities.  

The coronavirus pandemic has created a number of logistical challenges, including extra time and effort to sanitize facilities and for hand-washing, Dr. Barisano says. “It’s definitely been a challenge, but the ability of our schools to be innovative and smart enough to be flexible, make the necessary changes, and to be adaptable has been impressive.” 

Without public-school bureaucracies, she notes, the Catholic schools were able to successfully pivot as they met the demands of both virtual and in-person curricula. “Even if we experience bumps in the road, we navigate them effectively and swiftly, keeping the well being of our teachers, principals, and children in mind.” 

With families experiencing job loss, economic uncertainties, and health issues, it’s vital that parents and children recognize that the Catholic schools are their partners, Schabert observes. 

“We are not working against, but for you,” he notes. “Everyone is here because we care about our faith, our future, and our children. We are workers in the vineyard doing everything in our power for the children.” 

Regarding issues created by COVID-19, Dr. Barisano says everyone must be patient. “We can offer grace and understanding to each other because that benefits all of us,” she says. “Sometimes emotions are fueled by our fear of the unknown. But this is a journey – we must embrace the spirit of journeying together.” 

In spite of the pandemic, students, parents, and teachers are happy to be back in class face-to-face. 

“The universal response from teachers and principals was their surprise at how overjoyed the kids were to come back, especially on day one,” Schabert says.  

“They were just filled with joy,” he adds. “They walked in with their masks on and just took things as matter of course.” 

Parents interested in pursuing Catholic education for their children can email Schabert at enrollment@occatholicschools.org or call him at
714-282-3114 

HELP CATHOLIC SCHOOLS TO HELP AT-RISK FAMILIES, US BISHOPS TELL CONGRESS

CNA Staff, Aug 7, 2020 / 10:30 am (CNA) – Several leading U.S. Catholic cardinals and bishops urged congressional leaders to provide emergency private school tuition aid to low-middle income families, in a letter on Thursday.

The president of the U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB), Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, signed the letter to House and Senate leaders, along with USCCB education chair Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland.

They argued that many Catholic schools which serve low-income families are at risk of closing due to economic difficulties caused by the pandemic.

“The economic devastation that has hit so many of America’s families has made it impossible for many struggling families to continue paying tuition,” they wrote, adding that school closures in urban areas “are disproportionately harmful to low-income and black children” who attend.

Other U.S. metropolitans with large Catholic school districts signed on to the letter, including Cardinal Blasé Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.

They addressed the letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Congressional and White House leaders are currently in the middle of negotiations on another coronavirus relief package. Associated Press reported on Wednesday that parties were still debating provisions for food stamps, and renters and jobless assistance.

On Thursday, the bishops said that education aid in the relief package should be “robust,” and should grant “equal consideration” to private school children.

Economic shock from the pandemic has already resulted in the closure of 140 Catholic schools around the country, the bishops said, and with many schools unable to reopen for in-person learning in the fall, there could be a resulting drop in tuition revenue and the closure of more schools.

The Boston archdiocese superintendent told NPR recently that nine of its Catholic schools would be closing, and that 24 more schools were on a “watch list.” The New York archdiocese announced in July that 20 schools would close and three would merge, due to the pandemic.

The bishops asked that non-public schools receive 10% of the emergency education aid given to public schools, noting that emergency tuition scholarships would be “the most effective way to help struggling families stay attached to their schools.”

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles announced in July that schools would be reopening in the fall, but then a state public health order required all schools in certain high-risk districts to remain closed for in-person learning. Archdiocesan schools in Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara counties are set to begin the school year with virtual learning.

According to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), there are currently more than 1.7 million students enrolled at 6,183 Catholic schools this year; more that 21% of the students are racial minorities, NCEA says, and 19% are non-Catholic.

“By equally supporting children in the non-public school community, you will maintain the integrity of those strong communities, while helping sustain the positive legacy of Catholic schools and their benefit to the common good for generations to come,” the bishops’ letter said.

CONQUERING UNCERTAINTY

Facing an autumn of uncertainty, adult Catholics may experience feelings of anxiety, foreboding, boredom, and anger. For children, the unknown can be frightening – and downright threatening. 

In light of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest edict that closes public school classrooms, there’s less uncertainty about attending school in the midst of a global pandemic. Still, the fears and questions that remain in our kids’ minds – about their routines, classes, and playdates with friends – demand their parents’ communication, reassurance, and support. 

“Arguably, many families are being asked to do the impossible during these times,” acknowledges Linda Ji, the Diocese of Orange’s director of pastoral care for families in all stages. “We are forced to make choices among only undesirable options.” Among those choices is the responsibility to home-school children whose classrooms are closed, to keep them healthy, and to provide extracurricular enrichment activities as well. 

Communication is paramount to calming children’s anxieties, even when it’s not clear what the future will bring, says Margery Arnold, an Irvine-based child psychologist.  

“Speak to your children when you are calm yourself,” Arnold advises. “You can tell them the facts, what is known and unknown, and ask them about their thoughts and feelings.  

“Every time the family goes through something difficult, if children are part of the solution it helps them develop resilience and have hope.” 

Asking children what they know, what they have heard, and what they fear will happen is the best place to start, she says. “Communication is how we keep each other safe in this culture, where we have so many freedoms. It’s critical to keeping our kids safe.  

“If parents don’t know what their kids are experiencing, they can’t guide or protect them. We must keep the doors of communication open.” 

While uncertainty can be intimidating to even the most well-adjusted of us, Arnold says, it’s important for family members to remember the lessons we’ve already learned and recognize the hardships we’ve successfully overcome.  

“Kids are remarkably good at handling uncertainty,” she observes. “We’ve been surprised and challenged by things in particular during the COVID-19 crisis. But challenges make us stronger.” 

Loving relationships and intentional family rituals are important in times of crisis, Ji notes. “It is in the little ways we love each other that our homes and families are transformed and consecrated to Christ. 

“This does not mean just teaching our children how to pray or creating family prayer rituals, although of course it is good for families to pray together,” she explains. “All of the ‘mundane’ things we do – chores, work, play, school at home during a pandemic – can be sacred when done together with intentionality and love. 

“This is a kind of domestic spirituality that will help us through and nourish our faith as well as the faith of our children.” 

She concurs that consistent communication is crucial to a functional family. “Communication is essential for fostering intimacy and loving relationships in the home that is the basis of faithful Christian family living.” 

Ji emphasizes that parents must take care of themselves first so they can model well and care for their children. “We start with our strengths, and work on what we value most. Celebrate successes no matter how small and know we can’t do it all.”

CATHOLIC SCHOOLS WEIGH IN-PERSON LEARNING AS FALL SEMESTER APPROACHES

Washington D.C., Jul 25, 2020 / 06:01 am (CNA) – As school districts around the country are considering in-person or virtual education in the fall, Catholic dioceses are weighing tough decisions about how to serve their students.

Some dioceses are faced with state orders that do not include exemptions for religious schools, such as in California.

Initially, the nation’s largest Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles, with 74,000 students attending its schools, announced on June 15 that schools would be reopening for in-person learning in the fall in Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara.

However, California governor Gavin Newsom said on July 17 that schools in the state where coronavirus cases were high would remain closed for in-person learning.

Afterward, L.A. archdiocesan superintendent Paul Escala told families that in-person learning “will be delayed for now.” In all, schools in 33 counties in the state would have to institute remote learning because of high numbers of COVID-19 cases, per the governor’s standards.

The California Catholic bishops’ conference wrote Newsom on July 22, asking for flexibility on their reopening plans. They said that children could largely return to school with a low risk of infection or virus transmission, and asked Newsom to allow local authorities to grant reopening waivers for pre-K, elementary, and high schools.

The bishops noted their concern for both public health and “the broader health and development issues for our children if the state presumes to rely only on distance learning until a vaccine is developed.”

“In-person learning,” they said, “especially at the lower grades, provides emotional and social skills and supports that are crucial to early childhood development and the overall wellbeing of children which simply cannot be replaced.”

Meanwhile, in Texas where COVID-19 cases have soared in the summer, the state is granting religious private schools the freedom to decide for themselves how to reopen in the fall.

Texas attorney general Ken Paxton said on July 17 that religious private schools in the state were exempt from the governor’s orders for public schools, and that local governments could not close religious schools.

“Thus, as protected by the First Amendment and Texas law, religious private schools may continue to determine when it is safe for their communities to resume in-person instruction free from any government mandate or interference,” Paxton wrote.

Catholic schools in the diocese of Dallas are still planning to fully reopen this fall, the superintendent announced on July 21; schools outside of Dallas County will reopen on August 19, while those inside the county are scheduled to reopen September 2.

Around the U.S., dioceses and archdioceses are attempting to reopen schools safely but are having to take significant safety measures to do so.

The Archdiocese of Chicago plans to reopen its schools, but per its “Reopening with Trust” plan, is requiring all students and staff to wear masks indoors, daily temperature checks by parents, and for a “cohort” or fixed group of students to remain together throughout the day to prevent as much interspersing as possible. Parents have the option of choosing remote learning for their children.

Many schools are adopting a hybrid model for reopening, allowing parents who wish to keep their child at home to choose remote learning. In Louisiana, the New Orleans archdiocese is adopting such a model.

“We also recognize that parents are the first and primary educators of their children and must make decisions based on their unique circumstances,” superintendent Dr. RaeNell Houston said on July 21.

To the northwest, the Baton Rouge diocese said on July 22 that schools would reopen in early-to-mid-August, although schools would have to adjust their opening and closing times and classroom sizes to ensure the state’s safety protocols.

When the pandemic hit, unemployment around the country soared and donations to churches plummeted. The Boston archdiocese said in June that it would be closing around 10% of its schools.

Citing the “devastating” impact of the pandemic on tuition payments and donations, and the “significantly low rate of re-registration for the fall,” the Archdiocese of New York said earlier this month that 20 Catholic schools would be closing, and three schools would merge.

For the schools that are not closing, however, the superintendent Michael Deegan announced on July 13 that “Catholic Schools are opening in September!”

Deegan clarified that, since most schools could not accommodate all students and staff at once, principals would plan for “three-day/two-day” alternating week cycles for students, and remote learning for parents who wish.

Some dioceses have not yet made a decision on reopening in the fall.

In Miami, Archbishop Thomas Wenski called it “the $100,000 question,” according to local News 10 on July 21.

Florida is one of the states that has seen a later spike in virus cases, along with other states such as Texas and Arizona. While some states such as New York were hit hard by the virus in the early months of March and April, the number of new COVID cases in Florida soared in the summer, reaching a high of more than 15,000 new cases in a single day on July 12.

Elsewhere, other dioceses are completely or almost fully reopening on schedule.

The diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts announced on July 10 that all elementary schools would re-open in the fall for in-person learning, while the four high schools would make re-opening decisions on a case-by-case basis.

In Denver, Archbishop Samuel Aquila said on May 29 that schools would be re-opening in the fall for in-person learning. The Denver Catholic reported on Friday that the archdiocese had partnered with regional health care provider Centura, which pledged to offer guidance and donating more than two million face masks for students and staff.

The 19 Catholic schools in the Charlotte diocese are also reopening with in-person instruction in the fall, and an option for virtual learning for parents who desire.

CATHOLIC SCHOOL TEACHERS ARE ‘MINISTERS’, SCOTUS RULES

CNA Staff, Jul 8, 2020 / 08:55 am (CNA) – The Supreme Court on Wednesday delivered a long-awaited religious liberty decision on the right of religious schools to hire and fire teachers. The court found in favor of two Catholic schools in California, ruling that a “ministerial exception” to government interference applies to teachers in religious schools.

The ruling came in the consolidated cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel. The justices ruled in a 7-2 decision that teachers at Catholic grade schools qualified for the “ministers exception” established by the court in the 2012 Hosana Tabor case.

“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,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the majority.

“Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”

The two California Catholic schools did not renew the contracts of the teachers in 2014 and 2015. In separate cases combined by the Supreme Court, the teachers alleged that their dismissals were based on disability and age, not poor performance. The schools claimed they were exempt from employment discrimination laws under the ministerial exception, the legal doctrine under which government cannot interfere in the employment decisions of churches and religious institutions regarding the hiring and firing of ministers.

In both cases, the teachers’ suits were dismissed by federal courts, and then reinstated by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeal.

When the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the combined case in May, lawyers for the schools argued that “for hours on end over the course of a week,” teachers in Catholic schools were the “primary agents” by which the faith was taught to students. Argument – and questions from the bench – focused on how broadly the ministerial exception could be applied to the employees of religious schools.

The decision comes just weeks after the court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, that employers cannot fire employees because of their sexual orientation or “gender identity.” Justice Neil Gorsuch, who authored the majority opinion in that case, acknowledged that religious freedom cases related to the decision would probably come before the Court in the future.

The decision about who qualifies as a minister could directly impact future cases in which teachers might be dismissed for failing to adhere to Church teachins on same-sex marriage or transgender issues, both of which have been subjects of controversy in recent months.

“Requiring the use of the title [minister] would constitute impermissible discrimination,” the court ruled. Referencing the previous decision in Hosana Tabor, Altio wrote that there must be “a recognition 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 a private religious school.”

The verdict also explicitly referenced the policy of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, home to both of the schools designating all teachers in Catholic schools as being effectively ministers.

“Like all teachers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Morrissey-Berru was “considered a catechist,” i.e., “a teacher of religion,” Alito noted in his decision for the majority.

“There is abundant record evidence that [both teachers] performed vital religious duties. Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught, and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility.”

The court concluded that “when a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”

Joining Alito in the majority decision were Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts. Justices Sotomayer and Ginsburg dissented.