Breathing room for religious liberty?

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."

Find out more about the case with this bakgrounder from the Pew Forum. Read the NY Times' report here.

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Tom Maher
7 years 2 months ago
Thanks for so promptly bringing to the readers attention the wonderful news of today's Supreme Court decision on the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Churhc and School v. EEOC.  The 9-0 decision solidly behind the Religion clauses of the Constitution reaffrims again the Religious Liberties free of government entaglement in the affairs of religious organizations. 

One has to agree with Bishop Lori, Chairmen of the USCCB's  Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, who has advocated for Religious Freedom as expressed in the Fitrst Amendment from recent entaglement by government agnecies,  "It's a a great day for the First Amendment."  

It is a thrill to read Chief Justice Roberts' words for the court "We cannot accept the remarkable view that the religious clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization's freedom to select its own ministers".  The court has now formally reaffirm religion's right to decide who will and who will not be "ministers" of their religion, free from interference from any government.  This is a celebration of religious freedom.
John Hayes
7 years 2 months ago
A columnist on the website of a Baptist group that submitted a brief urging the court to rule as it did points out that churches still have a moral obligation  to treat their employees fairly - and shouldn't overlook that just because the law won't look into their motivations. 

…the exception – like all accommodations designed to preserve religious freedom – is a trust that should not be abused. The freedom to make certain employment decisions without government interference leaves intact the moral obligation to act honorably, to treat employees honestly, and to make religious decisions based upon true religious beliefs. Support for a broad definition of the ministerial exception should not imply support for a broad license to discriminate with impunity. It merely stands for the proposition that sound judgment in such cases can only fall under the responsibility of the religious institution itself, as it is not proper for our courts.
david power
7 years 2 months ago
I truly admire the American constitution and the way Americans fight over it.
I know that many only see it as a tool to use in a battle and are not great respecters of persons and their innate freedom as recognized by the constitution, nonetheless this document has created the most fruitful and lasting effect on America and ever so slowly on the rest of the World.  
Jim McCrea
7 years 2 months ago
I love a good joke, and here is one:  "…the exception – like all accommodations designed to preserve religious freedom – is a trust that should not be abused."
Crystal Watson
7 years 2 months ago
Yeah, the wondeful news that religious institutions can discriminate against the disabled with impunity  :(
7 years 2 months ago
The point is - isn't it - that an individual gives up some of her or his Constitutional rights by going to work for a "religious institution." What constitutes a religious institution remains to be defined by future cases. In this one, the Court found that a teacher is "like" a minister. Is a janitor also "like" a minister? Stand by.

So, by going to work for the still undefined entities, one gives up some employment rights. Other rights to be automatically lost will be defined by future rulings based on this case. Talk about judicial activism.

I just once would like to see Chief Justice Roberts find an Constitutional right that protects individuals against corporations and institutions., just to know that there still are some.
Tom Maher
7 years 2 months ago
Anti-discrimination laws are being used as a powerful weapon to attack and diminish religion, religious institution, and religious expression in America.  Religious liberties are under attack in America by a too-powerful government that needs to be constrained and kept out of religion and stopped from preventing the free exercise of religion.

The Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Church and School v EEOC Supreme Court case is an example of how the highest levels of government seek to control and interfere with  religion in disregard of well established First Amendment principle prohibiting government interference with religon and allowing the free expression of religion.

The court has confirmed that the First Amenedment does matter as it always has mattered by 9 - 0.  This should be no surprise.  Yet shockly the Obama adminstation Solicitor General argued that the First Amemndment did not apply during oral argument of the case.  Several justices on hearing this including recently appointed justice Kagan who had only recently been Solicitor General for the Obma Justice Department expressed astonishment that First Amendment rights would be totally disregarded by the Justice Department in favor of mechanical application of anti-discrimination law deeply entangling governemnt in religion and religous decisions.    

The court agreed that this case is not about anti-discrimination law.  Anti-discimination laws are not above the U.S. Constituion First Amendment rights that have always served America so well and made the nation a land of liberty.
Crystal Watson
7 years 2 months ago
    Religion is about God and points us to him but the institutions are made up of fallible human beings.     Given this ruling, no church needs to worry about being sued if it decides to fire someone because they've been crippled, or because of the color of their skin or because they waon't allow themselves to be sexually harradded.   The Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act came into being for important reasons, and if you think that churches are above discriminating for such lowly reasons, you only need to look at this case, in which the defendent was fired for being disabled.  This ruling isn't about churches bing free to do good - the laws only protects people from emplouers doing them  wrong - this is about the church being above the law.  You would think that given the example the church has given of their lawfulness with the abuse crisis, we'd be a little more wary of rulings like this.
Jim McCrea
7 years 2 months ago
As stated on another website, this ruling gives religious groups the freedom to prove to the rest of the world that they can be jerks - as has been suspected all along anyway.
Joshua DeCuir
7 years 2 months ago
''As stated on another website, this ruling gives religious groups the freedom to prove to the rest of the world that they can be jerks - as has been suspected all along anyway.''

This is a complete falsehood, as anyone who listened to the oral arugment, read the parties' briefs, and yesterday's opinion would know. Both Prof. Laycock who argued the case, and the Chief Justice's opinion, acknowledge that the First Amendment protection of religious freedom does NOT trump all other legitimate government concerns (such as protecting innocent children).  They only held that the First Amendment's clear textual commitment to religious freedom requires governments to respect the right of religious organizations to regulate their internal affairs as they see fit.  But there are a number of exceptions that would allow government intrusion on important grounds.
Michael Appleton
7 years 2 months ago
The Solicitor General argued in favor of the applicability of laws prohibiting employment discrimination against the disabled, and ought not to be castigated for doing so. But the decision of the Supreme Court was to be expected and is in accord with established precedent.

While applauding the decision, however, religious organizations should recognize the potential for abuse of the "ministerial" exception. The fact that a disabled employee may be tossed aside with impunity provided he or she has been classified as a "minister" may be constitutionally protected, but it is hardly praiseworthy.   


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