A Supreme Court ruling today that affirms church organizations have the right to choose their own leaders has been called a “tremendous victory for religious freedom.”
The comment comes from Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, regarding the court’s ruling in the case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.
The case was about a religiously commissioned teacher who taught in a Missouri Synod Lutheran school and was fired after she “became confrontational with the school administration,” the ACLJ said. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the teacher herself teamed up to sue the church, claiming the church “retaliated” against her for threatening to sue over a medical disability.
A lower court threw out the case, explaining the “ministerial exception” to employment laws barred court review. But an appeals court reinstated the case, explaining in its judgment that the teacher’s religious duties were outweighed by her instruction of the students in secular subjects.
The Supreme Court today overturned that appeals court decision, determining that both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment protect the freedom of churches to select religiously commissioned teachers for their religious grade schools.
“The fact that the court was unanimous underlines how essential a part of religious liberty is the principle that churches and synagogues get to select their religion teachers. Government has no business deciding who should or should not carry out religious ministry, and we’re delighted the high court reached that conclusion,” said Sekulow.
John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, said it’s an important question.
“When a church is forced to make employment decisions based on a lawsuit rather than spiritual needs, the end result is that its core activities and spiritual message are inevitably altered in order to accommodate or protect against government pressures or expectations,” he said.
“Churches must be free to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church governance as well as those of faith and doctrine,” he said.
The dispute arose over Cheryl Perich, who was hired as a “called” teacher for Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in 2000.
According to the guidelines, a “called” teacher had to be recommended for appointment by the church’s elders and board of directors. While she taught math, language arts and other class, she also taught religion and led chapel services.
The Rutherford report said she became ill in 2004 and later was diagnosed with narcolepsy.
“When the school began the process of cutting ties with Perich because she could not perform her duties, Perich brought a claim against the school under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Rutherford’s report said.
“In filing an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute asked the court to reject the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling that whether an employee is a ‘minister’ for purposes of this exemption depends on whether ‘the employee’s primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order.’”
According to the Alliance Defense Fund, the decision was correct.
“The Supreme Court was right to conclude that the government cannot contradict a church’s determination of who can act as its ministers. This clearly goes to the heart of the original intent of the religion clauses of the First Amendment,” said Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for the organization.
The opinion of the court, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said, “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.”
Among the references cited was the Magna Carta, where “King John agreed that ‘the English church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired.’”
“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,” the opinion said.
The opinion also noted that Perich “held herself out as a minister of the church” by, among other things, claiming “a special housing allowance on her taxes that was available only to employees earning their compensation ‘in the exercise of the ministry.’”
Justice Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion, said that without a strong affirmation of the rights of religious groups, an uncertainty and fear of liability “may cause a religious group to conform its beliefs and practices regarding ‘ministers’ to the prevailing secular understanding.”
“These are certainly dangers that the First Amendment was designed to guard again.”
Also filing a concurrence was Justice Samuel Alito.
He said he such protections should apply not just to “ministers” but to “employees.”
“It should apply to any ‘employee’ who leads a religious organization. conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.”