MADISON (WKOW) -- A split decision by Wisconsin's highest court reverses a lower court's ruling and sends the message back that religious school teachers are not protected by the state's anti-discrimination laws.
In a 4-3 decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that religious schools have a constitutional right to choose their own employees to carry out their missions and that includes many teachers.
The court says those employees cannot make discrimination claims under the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act because that would interfere with their employers' right to religious freedom.
In the case reviewed by the court, state supreme justices dismissed an age discrimination complaint filed by a former first-grade Catholic school teacher.
"The state surely has a strong interest in ensuring fair employment opportunities," wrote Justice Michael Gableman for the court's majority.
"Nonetheless, we conclude that the Wisconsin legislature oversteps its constitutional authority when its otherwise laudable efforts at fairness interfere with the hiring and firing of employees who are important and closely linked to the religious mission of a religious organization."
"This is a very good decision," said La Crosse Catholic Diocese attorney James Birnbaum.
"It continues the Wisconsin tradition of a strong religious freedom state."
Dissenting Justice Patrick Crooks says the decision "extends a free pass to religious schools to discriminate against their lay employees."
President Rita Schwartz of the five thousand member National Association of Catholic School Teachers called the ruling an "abomination."
"It's the only word I can think of to describe the wholesale ability of the diocese of La Crosse to discriminate any way they want against their employees."
Schwartz said Wisconsin catholic school teachers are especially vulnerable because state labor law fails to adequately protect their right to organize into unions.
Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom from Religion Foundation said the logic of the court decision should bring into question public financial support for religious schools, such as takes place in Milwaukee's school choice program. "If they are not held accountable to state discrimination laws, there should not be state (financial) support for these schools."
The teacher involved in the case, Wendy Ostlund, was 53 when she was replaced by a younger teacher from another area Catholic school that was closing. Ostlund taught at the school for twenty eight years.