U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejects government oversight of churches

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Religious workers can’t sue for job discrimination, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, saying for the first time that churches — not courts — are the best judges of whether clergy and other religious employees should be fired or hired.

But The Washington Post notes

the high court tempered its decision bolstering the constitutional separation of church and state by refusing to give a detailed description of what constitutes a religious employee, which left an untold number of workers at churches, synagogues and other religious organizations still in limbo over whether government antidiscrimination laws protect them in job bias disputes.

It was, nevertheless, the first time the high court has acknowledged the existence of a so-called “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws — a doctrine developed in lower court rulings. This doctrine says the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion shields churches and their operations from the reach of such protective laws when the issue involves religious employees of these institutions.

“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in a unanimous opinion. “But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.”

The New York Times says this may be the Supreme Court’s most significant religious liberty decision in two decades:


The case, Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, No. 10-553, was brought by Cheryl Perich, who had been a teacher at a school in Redford, Mich., that was part of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the second-largest Lutheran denomination in the United States. Ms. Perich said she was fired for pursuing an employment discrimination claim based on a disability, narcolepsy.

Ms. Perich had taught mostly secular subjects but also taught religion classes and attended chapel with her class.

“It is true that her religious duties consumed only 45 minutes of each workday,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “and that the rest of her day was devoted to teaching secular subjects.”

“The issue before us, however, is not one that can be resolved with a stopwatch,” he wrote.

Instead, the court looked to several factors. Ms. Perich was a “called” teacher who had completed religious training and whom the school considered a minister. She was fired, the school said, for violating religious doctrine by pursuing litigation rather than trying to resolve her dispute within the church.

Religion News Service quotes Rob Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame who wrote an amicus brief on the case in support of the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, as saying “The court hasn’t spoken this clearly on a church-state matter in almost 20 years.”

“This is bedrock,” Garnett continued. “All the justices came together to say if religious freedom means anything, it means governments can’t interfere with religious institutions’ decisions on who is going to be their minister or teacher.”

Those who advocate for the separation of church and state said the court has now set the bar far too high for employees of religious institutions who seek redress against discrimination.

“The really terrible thing about this decision is that if you fire someone and religion is just a pretext, it can’t be addressed by courts,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“It’s just a gigantic new exception, a new loophole to the civil rights law for religious groups that will not be shut in a very long time — if ever.”

In an opinion article The Wall Street Journal says

It was a banner day for religious freedom yesterday as the Supreme Court ruled that government can’t tell religious institutions whom they can hire and fire as “ministers.”

The unanimous decision was a crushing rebuke to the Obama Administration, which had taken the radical position that churches are little different from any other employer in job disputes.

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This post was last updated: Jan. 12, 2012