Court affirms religious groups’ right to say who’s a minister

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Religious groups of all stripes breathed a sigh of relief this week when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC that the First Amendment protects the freedom of religious organizations to choose “who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.”

Cheryl Perich, a former teacher at Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church’s school, claimed that the church violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by firing her after a disability-related leave of absence. Her position was supported by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The church maintained that as a “called minister” (a commissioned minister in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod), Perich could not sue under the ADA because lower courts have long recognized a “ministerial exception” protecting the right of churches and other religious institutions to determine who should be their ministers.

In yesterday’s decision, the high court reversed the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in favor of Perich and sided with the church.

Although the Supreme Court left some questions about the scope of the “ministerial exception” for another day, the unanimous decision in Hosanna-Tabor makes clear that religious groups have a constitutional right to govern their internal affairs without interference from the state.

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. recognized society’s important interest in protecting workers from employment discrimination. But in this case, religious freedom outweighs that interest:

“When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.”

It remains to be seen how far the Court would extend the ministerial exception in less-obvious cases. Are lay teachers in religious schools, for example, ministers — or not? Are all civil suits by ministers prohibited — or just those involving employment discrimination? Answers to these questions will come in future cases. (The Court rightly notes that the “ministerial exception” has been recognized by the courts for more than 40 years without the dire consequences predicted by Perich and the EEOC.)

But the Court did answer the big question: Yes, there is a “ministerial exception” rooted in the First Amendment. And the Court explicitly rejected what it characterized as the “extreme” position of the EEOC:

“We cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.”

A good portion of the Court’s decision is a much-needed history lesson, reminding Americans that the decision for religious freedom was made by our Founders against the backdrop of church-state entanglement in Europe – an entanglement that was the leading cause of oppression and persecution for centuries.

Preventing a repetition of this history is at the very heart of the First Amendment. As the Court explains:

“By forbidding the ‘establishment of religion’ and guaranteeing the ‘free exercise thereof,’ the Religion Clauses ensured that the Federal Government would have no role in filling ecclesiastical offices. The Establishment Clause prevents Government from appointing ministers, and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.”

The Hosanna-Tabor decision is a significant victory for religious freedom.

Related: Ministerial-exception ruling could increase discrimination, by David L. Hudson Jr.

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