In a groundbreaking decision that had been anticipated by religious bodies across the country, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 11 that a “ministerial exception,” a concept developed in lower courts but only now endorsed by the Supreme Court, means that the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion shields churches from federal laws meant to end employment discrimination.
“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 force churches to employ 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.”
In a concurring brief, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, said the definition of who is a “minister” should always be left to the faith group. “The mere adjudication of such questions would pose grave problems for religious autonomy,” Alito wrote.
“The Supreme Court decision marks a victory for religious liberty and the U.S. Constitution,” said Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. “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.”
Critics of the decision worry that it might mean whistle-blowers within church institutions on issues like the sexual abuse of children could be terminated without recourse.
The case came before the court after the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich., on behalf of a terminated 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 under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
At the school her role was mostly that of a secular teacher, but she taught one religion class and as a “called teacher” was considered a minister of the church. That last status was crucial to the court’s ruling. Had she not been considered a minister or had she not taught at least one religion class, it is not clear that would have applied.
The apparent precedent may not prove as far-reaching as the U.S. bishops and other U.S. religious leaders hope. According to some court watchers, the 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.