The U.S. bishops were more than pleased with today's unanimous Supreme Court ruling in the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. In a groundbreaking decision that had been anxiously anticipated by religious bodies across the country, the court held that a "ministerial exception" to antidiscrimination laws means that religious employees of a church cannot sue for employment discrimination. The notion of a "ministerial exception" had been developed in lower court decisions; the exception means that the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion shields churches and their operations from the reach of protective federal laws when the issue involves employees of these institutions.
“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote for the court. “But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.” Roberts said allowing anti-discrimination lawsuits against religious organizations could end up forcing churches to take religious leaders they no longer want.
"Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs," Roberts said. "By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group's right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments."
The court's decision will make it virtually impossible for ministers to take on their employers for being fired for complaining about issues like sexual harassment.
“It’s a great day for the First Amendment,” said Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. "The Supreme Court decision marks a victory for religious liberty and the U.S. Constitution, " Lori said. "Freedom of Religion is America’s First Freedom and the Court has spoken unanimously in favor of it. The Founding Fathers would be proud."
Lori said the long-standing "ministerial exception" is grounded in the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment and "prevents the government from interfering in the employment relationship between a Church and its ministers."
"This decision makes resoundingly clear the historical and constitutional importance of keeping internal church affairs off limits to the government—because whoever chooses the minister chooses the message."
The case came before the court because the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich., on behalf of employee Cheryl Perich. Returning to work after a sick leave, Perich discovered that the school was unwilling to rehire her. The Michigan E.E.O.C. took up her case after she complained of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Her role was mostly that of a secular teacher, but she did teach one religion class and was considered a minister of the church. That last status might have been crucial to the court's ruling. Had she not been considered a minister or had she not taught at least one religion class, it's not likely the ministerial exception would have applied.
According to the Associated Press, the court's decision was a narrow one, with Roberts refusing to extend the ministerial exception to other types of lawsuits that religious employees might bring against their employers. "We express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers," Roberts said.
The apparent precedent may not prove as far-reaching as the U.S. bishops and other U.S. religious leaders hope. Justice Samuel Alito, wrote a separate opinion, arguing that the exception should be tailored for only an employee "who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith."