USA Supreme Court Gets It Right on Religious Liberty

Yesterday, January 11, 2012, the USA Supreme Court ruled unanimously and decisively in favor of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School's right to complete freedom in hiring and dismissing its ministers, regardless of provisions of civil law concerning employment such as those of the Americans with Disabilities Act. A case alleging unfair discrimination had been brought against the school by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al. and Chreryl Perich. (Summary statement, full judgment and concurring opinions [PDF])

"Cheryl Perich" had been hired by the school and had later accepted the position of a "called" teacher (in contrast to a "lay" teacher). She had taken disability leave at the beginning of the 2004-2005. She then wanted to return to work the following February. The school's principal stated that it had contracted with a lay teacher to fill her position for the remainder of the earth, and school administrators expressed their opinion that she was unlikely to be physically capable of returning to work that year or the next, and offered to pay a portion of her health insurance premiums if she would resign as a called teacher. She refused, showed up to work on the first day when he doctor cleared her medically for work, February 22. The congregation considered this behavior and insistence inappropriate, and voted to rescind her "call", thereupon terminating her employment. She filed a charge against the church and school with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that her employment had been terminated in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and prohibits retaliation for making a charge under the ADA. The EEOC then brought a suit against the Hosanna-Tabor church and school, claiming that she had been fired in retaliation for threatening a lawsuit under the ADA. Hosanna-Tabor argued that the suit was barred by the First Amendment because it concerned the freedom of a religious institution to regulate its own affairs and ministers, that Perich had been fired for a religious reason, namely that her threat to sue the Church violated the Synod's belief that Christians should resolve their disputes internally. (Following St. Paul in Corinthians 5).
A district court had originally decided in favor of the school. The Appeals Court reversed that decision, and the case finally came to the USA Supreme Court in 2011.

The Supreme Court ruled that (1) the "ministerial exception" to legislation concerning employment of ministers was valid, and that (2) Perich was a minister for the purposes of this exception.

The justification given for the "ministerial exception" to legislation concerning employment of ministers was that the employment of ministers is intimately linked to religious belief.

The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. 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. 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. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.

The EEOC and Perich had argued that Hosanna-Tabor's stated reason for firing Perich, namely that her way of acting had violated the church's religious beliefs, was merely a pretext, and that the real reason was her disability. To this the court noted that it is irrelevant what the "real" reason for firing Perich was. "The purpose of the [ministerial] exception is not to safeguard a church's decision to fire a minister only when it is made for a religious reason. The exception instead ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful — a matter "strictly ecclesiastical," — is the church's alone.

The court did not, however, affirm that the discernment of who is a "minister" lies outside the court's competence. The opinion of the court, as delivered by Chief Justice Roberts, suggests that it does lie within the court's competence; the court gives a number of reasons why Perich is to be considered a minister, of which one reason is the fact that she was called and considered such by the church. For this reason, Justice Thomas noted his own opinion in a concurring note that "the Religion Clauses require civil courts to apply the ministerial exception and to defer to a religious organization's good-faith understanding of who qualifies as its minister." He notes that "a religious organization's right to choose its ministers would be hollow" if it lay in the competence of secular courts to determine whether a given person is or is not a "minister", "if secular courts could second-guess the organization's sincere determination that a given employee is a"minister" under the organization's theological tenets." Whether an employee of a religious organization is a "minister" is of itself a religious question, and therefore to be decided by the religious body. This opinion seems right to me, and it is unfortunate that the court did not adopt this view as a whole — though that need not overshadow the value and importance of the important and correct decision of the court.

The summary judgment suggests that there is a certain tension between the state's interest in regulating employment to foster justice and hinder unjust discrimination, and the freedom of religious groups to regulate themselves, but that the judgment here comes principally on the side of religious freedom.

The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission. 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.

The suggested tension is also, in my opinion, a real one. As St. Augustine, e.g., and St. Thomas Aquinas point out, human law cannot punish or forbid all wrongdoing, since while seeking to do so, it would do away with many good things, and would hinder the common good. (De libero arbitrio I, 5,6, Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 91, a. 4 & q. 96, a. 2). Opinions may differ about whether American government's regulation of employment even in general benefits the common good by fostering justice and hindering injustice. But in any case, such lawful regulation can in principle be so beneficial. It can hinder various injustices. Given the realistic supposition that some such injustices will be present in religious organizations, the government could hinder those injustices by refusing to recognize the right of religious organizations to govern themselves, prohibiting and punishing those injustices, but this would be to do away with particular injustices by means of an even graver injustice.

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