Yesterday the Court released a 4-3 decision in the 2002 Coulee Catholic Schools v. LIRC case. In 2002, 53-year-old Wendy Ostlund sued her former employer, Coulee Catholic Schools, for age discrimination because she was fired, along with 8 other teachers.
State Supreme Court Justices Prosser, Roggensack, Ziegler and Gableman ruled that religious schools are exempt from employment discrimination claims under the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act (WFEA) when the employee’s position is “important and closely linked to the religious mission of a religious organization.”
Claims of age discrimination fall under the WFEA, therefore, according to the Court, Ostlund cannot sue the Catholic school for firing her.
It’s an interesting case because although the Court agrees the “state has a strong interest in preventing age discrimination in society as a whole,” they are constrained by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Wisconsin constitution and statutes which pr0tect the free exercise of religion and prohibit the state from “enforcing discrimination laws against religious associations when the employment at issue serves a ministerial or ecclesiastical function.” (Jocz v. LIRC, 196 Wis. 2d 273, 538 N.W.2d 588).
Coulee is an extremely important precedent for religious organizations because the ruling protects faith-based organizations’ hiring practices for “ministerial or ecclesiastical” positions.
Here’s my favorite quote from Coulee
As a court, our job is to interpret and apply the law the people adopt, not to make it up in accord with ours or society’s current policy preferences.
Good for them! The Court leaves the door open for the legislature to apply the age discrimination law against religious organizations instead of creating the policy in their ruling.