Politicians who complain that federal judges are waging war on religious liberty should read the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Wednesday in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The court said the First Amendment to the Constitution protects churches from employment discrimination lawsuits by employees who are designated "ministers." It is a ringing endorsement of the idea that the First Amendment limits the government from interfering with internal decisions of religious groups.
The ruling is narrowly limited to the facts of the Lutheran church case, but it is easy to see the court expanding the principle to protect other religious matters from federal intervention. That includes the fact that all churches are free to decide for themselves whether to perform same-sex marriages, as the Iowa Supreme Court emphasized in its ruling in Varnum v. Brien.
In this case, the Redford, Mich., Lutheran church was sued by a woman who had taught in the church’s school. Cheryl Perich claimed she was illegally fired for health problems in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The church said it fired the teacher because she violated church policy when she threatened to sue, which violated the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s belief that "Christians should resolve their disputes internally."
The court said such hiring and firing decisions are for the church to make, not the government. Because Perich was not an ordinary teacher, she was a "minister of religion," which involved religious classroom instruction and leading religious services. She had to undergo six years of training to achieve that designation. The court said the church is free to choose or reject its 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," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a unanimous court. "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."
While Roberts' majority opinion refers to a "ministerial exception" throughout, Justice Samuel Alito noted in a concurring opinion signed by Justice Elena Kagan that the word "minister" does not necessarily apply to Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists. Thus, Alito said the ministerial exception "should apply to any employee who leads a religious organization, conducts worship service or important religious ceremonies or rituals or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith."
Although the ruling is narrowly confined to the facts of the Michigan case, it has broader implications for religions being free of government interference. Indeed, the chief justice’s majority opinion delves deep into English history to trace the roots of the First Amendment, which protects groups of religious believers from government dictates.
This has meaning for those who want government endorsement of Christianity and prayer led by public schoolteachers. They forget that the First Amendment has two clauses pertaining to religion. As Wednesday’s decision made clear, the second clause says government cannot interfere with the free exercise of religion. The first clause says the government cannot establish an official government religion.
The First Amendment was written by men who had firsthand knowledge of what happens when the king rules the church and banishes other religious sects. "Familiar with life under the established Church of England," Roberts wrote, "the founding generation sought to foreclose the possibility of a national church."
The courts are defending the Constitution when they read both clauses, not just one.
Copyright Des Moines Register. Reprinted with permission.