This is a part of Disorder in the Court, a weeklong series on the legal press and the most explosive Supreme Court in generations: how we cover it, how we’ve failed, and how we can do better. In these installments, we’re looking specifically at those who have suffered at the hands of SCOTUS decisions, as their stories are too frequently overlooked.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that religious institutions, including religious schools, were exempt from anti-discrimination laws in the hiring and firing of employees designated as “ministers,” based on First Amendment grounds. But this “ministerial exception” was relatively undefined, leaving the question of who, exactly, could be counted as a minister.
In May 2020, the Supreme Court heard a case on this very question: Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, which revolved around a former Catholic school teacher claiming age discrimination. Ultimately, that July, the court, with a majority opinion from Justice Samuel Alito, ruled 7–2 that the teacher could indeed count as a “minister,” granting strong new protections for religious institutions.
But before that ruling happened, the case had been combined with another: St. James School v. Biel. Kristen Biel, a teacher who worked at the eponymous Catholic school in Torrance, California, during the 2013–2014 school year, sued St. James claiming that she had been fired because of her cancer diagnosis in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission granted Biel the right to sue the school in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. After it was appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, it was combined with Our Lady of Guadalupe School and heard before the Supreme Court.
To understand why Biel challenged the school and how the case affected her and her family, Slate spoke with Darryl Biel, Kristen’s 62-year-old husband, who now lives in Franklin, Ohio, with his Aussiedoodle, Dori. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
My wife was a brilliant woman, and for many, many years, her family and her close friends said, “You should be a doctor; you should teach; you should do something, you’re so brilliant.” She was a full-time mom, and the kids were growing up, and then at some point, she thought, OK, I need to do something. So she finished her degree that she had started at Fresno State. And then she got her teaching credential: Dean’s list, cum laude, straight A’s. A great role model for the kids, to see their mother at age 42 going back to school and doing this.
She had been a member of the St. Lawrence parish forever. So she did some student teaching, filling in teaching at St. Lawrence and St. James and a couple other places. She did such a great job at St. James that they offered her a full-time position teaching the fifth grade. She loved it. She was just having a wonderful time at it. I’ve got binders full of notes from her students and parents there. Page after page of notes. You know, My child has progressed so much this year. Thank you, thank you, my child has never done so well in school; my son loves to learn. They just go on and on and on. My wife knew all the teaching modalities. She recognized kids who were auditory learners or tactile learners and whatever they might be, and she would home in on them and help these kids out individually.
And then one day right before the end of the school year, she felt a lump in her breast. She went to the doctor, and it was stage 3. Because of its advanced stage, it was in her lymph nodes. She immediately started chemo treatments and planning for a double mastectomy.
She took a day off from work for tests and things like that. And then she went in and told Sister Mary Margaret—the principal—what the diagnosis was and what her steps would be. A substitute teacher finished the school year.
[One day] during the summer, Kristen came in to prepare the classroom for the next year. That’s when Sister Mary Margaret told her that they would not renew her contract. Sister Mary Margaret’s words were, “It’s not fair to the kids to see you go through such a traumatic surgery.” I’ll never forget. It was just matter-of-fact: It’s not fair to the kids to have to have two teachers in the same school year and to see you after going through that.
And remember, this is Sister Mary Margaret, who was convicted of embezzling almost a million dollars from the school and gambling it away in Las Vegas. [Ed. note: Sister Mary Margaret Kreuper, at age 80, was sentenced to a year in federal prison for embezzling nearly $826,000 from St. James School.] So for Sister Mary Margaret to tell her that it wouldn’t be fair to the children for her to take some time off—it was inconceivable that someone could do this to a woman like Kristen. And to someone who was just diagnosed with a potential life-threatening disease.
[When she got home that day,] she was uncontrollably crying. I couldn’t get a word out of her for probably 30, 40 minutes. When she finally could get out what happened at the school, I was so angry. This was the last thing in the world somebody dealing with cancer should be going through.
My wife was an extremely strong and stubborn woman. You tell her she can’t do something, and she’ll do it. So she decided that it was wrong. Everybody thought it was wrong: You can’t fire someone because they got sick. You can’t be penalized because you got a cancer diagnosis. It’s wrong, and they needed to know that. There are laws protecting this. She was going to fight this. And she figured that the Americans with Disabilities Act would cover this. We had a couple of attorney friends who agreed with her that she may have a case.
We contacted a friend of mine who worked for a small firm in Los Angeles, and he agreed to take the case. He sent unanswered letters to the church and the diocese. The school tried to make excuses about why they fired her that had nothing to do with her health. They walked into a classroom and a couple of kids had too many pencils on their desks—that kind of thing. Little excuses that didn’t exist until the lawsuit. It was just devastating to her. I would have loved for my wife to have just been able to forget about that. She’s not that woman, she couldn’t let that go. She took it personally.
Initially, all she wanted was to have her job back. Had they said “OK, we’ll settle, you can have your job back and start teaching again next year,” she would have been happy with that. But the lengths that they took it to—it just became, then, a mission [for us]. One I’m sad she couldn’t see through.
[Our attorney] decided that this might become something much bigger and recommended a [more well-suited] firm. The archdiocese had hired some large firm to represent them.
We landed in front of the 9th Circuit. There was a decision against us. The appeal was for us. That then allowed us to go to the Supreme Court.
Kristen passed on June 9, 2019, shortly before the Supreme Court hearing. I would not have wanted her to sit and listen to that. I don’t know that she would have been able to handle it.
A court hearing that was set before SCOTUS was canceled because of COVID. My sister-in-law and I had plane tickets; we decided we wanted to be there to face these judges. We know we had zero influence, but we wanted to be there and look these justices in the eyes. But we were denied that, because they canceled everything and decided to do it over the phone. And then we all sat around in our homes and listened to the hearing take place.
RBG, God love her, was the only one that spoke up and mentioned the details about what the church was accused of doing to my wife and the fact that these nuns who made these decisions were the “gambling nuns of St. James.” That was the only part of that whole hearing that put a smile on my face. For others to defend the Catholic Church in this hearing was heartbreaking.
I hold the Catholic Church partially responsible for Kristen’s early demise, I think, because it was so devastating. When you’re trying to keep positive thoughts in your mind and focus on healing, and when all you’re focused on is what someone could do to you and how you can be treated—in some ways, she gave up a little hope. She took it very personally. And, you know, had she been able to focus on healing, and known that she had a job to come back to once she was feeling better—that could have made a difference. I don’t know. I’d like to think that it could have made a difference. Because I know what it did to her. And how deeply hurt she was.
How a religious institution could do this to someone just confounded me. That’s the most devastating thing. We were active members of the St. Lawrence parish, and St. James was just a couple of miles away. I was born and raised Catholic. Kristen converted before she started teaching at St. James. There wasn’t a time in my life that I wasn’t a part of the Catholic Church, coaching basketball or helping with the fun run for the church or something. We were both a part of that. And then for the school to turn around and turn their back on her—it was devastating to both of us. Questioning how the Catholic Church could condone this behavior from their principal, a nun—it shattered our faith. I have not been back to church since. I have not lost my faith in God, but I questioned that a bit. The Catholic Church and the Los Angeles diocese, I have no respect for. We felt absolutely betrayed.
I was interviewed by many different television stations and magazines and publications before the hearing, and they all said, “I wish you luck, but knowing the makeup of the Supreme Court, it’s not going to be in your favor.” I’m not stupid. I know that there’s a political makeup to the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court decisions should not be influenced by left or right; It should be right or wrong. And I thought we might get three or four justices. But a seven-to-two shutout was pretty devastating. I didn’t think it was going to be 7–2. I really didn’t.
I immediately got on the phone with her mom and then her sister. And one of the things that I said was, “I’m so glad that she wasn’t here to hear this.” I would have liked for her to have been able to see it through. But not with this outcome.
There were women—and not just women, but mostly women—lined up, according to my attorney, just waiting to be able to proceed [with lawsuits like ours]. I was contacted by women on Facebook: We were watching; We were hoping; We were praying. This happened to us. They did this to me. So the devastating thing for me, of this whole thing, was that our case made it worse. It’s now clarified what a minister is in the Catholic Church. And that can be a football coach. It could be a secretary. And it wasn’t defined before. Now, I don’t know who’s going to get [justice] for being fired wrongly by a religious institution, because of this. That makes me sad. It makes me very sad.