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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Supreme Court and the Ministerial Exemption

In January of 2012, the Supreme Court issued a significant religious liberty decision, ruling that churches and other religious groups must be free to choose and dismiss their leaders without government interference.  This was the first time that the Supreme Court had recognized the “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws although appellate courts (e.g., 6th circuit, 9th circuit, etc.) have recognized it for approximately 40 years. What it means is that Christian churches can't be forced to hire non-Christians as pastors, Catholic parishes don't have to hire female priests, Jews can dismiss rabbis if they (morally) step out of line, and so on.

The case before the Supreme Court, Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was brought by Cheryl Perich, who had been a teacher at a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod school in Redford, Mich.  Ms. Perich said she was fired for suing the school for employment discrimination, something (i.e., suing) the Missouri-Synod forbids among church members. That is, she was fired for violating religious doctrine by pursuing litigation rather than trying to resolve her dispute within the church through Church-sanctioned reconciliation processes. The issue was whether Perich was considered a minister or not. Although she taught mostly secular subjects, she also taught religion classes and attended chapel with her class, and (this is probably the most important point), she was a “called” teacher (i.e., a commissioned minister) who had completed religious training and whom the school considered a minister.

As I've noted in previous posts ("The Question Before the Court," "Morality vs. Constitutionality," "Justice Roberts and Obamacare"), the Supreme Court's job is not to decide whether the school acted morally but whether it acted constitutionally, and in this case, the court ruled unanimously (9-0) that it had. The details and implications of this case serve as a touchstone for a very interesting discussion on the most recent Research on Religion podcast ("Matthew Franck on Hosanna-Tabor and Ministerial Exemptions"). Here's a brief description of the hour-long podcast:
The surprising outcome of the Hosanna-Tabor v EEOC Supreme Court case forms the basis for our discussion of religious liberty and how far the “ministerial exemption” to federal anti-discrimation laws can be carried. Prof. Matthew Franck (Witherspoon Institute) discusses the details of the case, how it wound its way through the court system, and what happened at the Supreme Court. Along the way, Tony learns a great deal of the U.S. legal system. We then put this case in the broader context of religious freedom and labor regulations.
As always, you can listen to the podcast at the Research on Religion website or download it from iTunes.

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