Image by Rickydavid via Flickr
In a significant religious liberty decision, the Supreme Court on Wednesday recognized a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws, saying that religious groups must be free to choose and dismiss their leaders without government interference.
“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in a decision that was surprising in its sweep and its unanimity. “But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.”
The decision gave limited guidance about how courts should decide who counts as a minister, saying the court was “reluctant to adopt a rigid formula.”
The ruling will have concrete consequences for people employed by religious groups to do religious work. In addition to ministers, priests, rabbis, and other religious leaders, the decision appears to encompass teachers in religious schools with formal religious training who instruct students about religious matters.
The case, Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, No. 10-553, was brought by Cheryl Perich, who had been a teacher at a Michigan school that was part of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Ms. Perich was fired for pursuing an employment discrimination claim based on a disability, narcolepsy.
Ms. Perich had taught mostly secular subjects but also taught religion classes and attended chapel with her class.
“It is true that her religious duties consumed only 45 minutes of each workday,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “and that the rest of her day was devoted to teaching secular subjects.”
“The issue before us, however, is not one that can be resolved with a stopwatch,” he wrote.
Ms. Perich was a “called” teacher who had religious training. The school said it fired her for violating religious doctrine by pursuing litigation and not trying to resolve her dispute within the church.
Chief Justice Roberts devoted several pages of his opinion to a history of religious freedom, concluding that an animating principle behind the First Amendment’s religious liberty clauses was to prohibit government interference in the internal affairs of religious groups generally and in their choice of their leaders in particular.
Via The New York Times.