Seven conservative Virginia church congregations, which broke away from the Episcopal Church in 2006, were ruled against by Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows.

Judge Bellows rejected the legal argument of these seven congregations that they should be able to keep an estimated $40 million in church property – where they presently worship.

A news release from the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, the denomination’s largest diocese, reported that Judge Bellows ruled that the national denomination and diocese have a contractual and proprietary interest in each of these church properties. The court ordered that all property subject to its ruling be turned over to the diocese.

Virginia Episcopal Bishop Shannon Johnston issued a statement:

“Our goal throughout this litigation has been to return faithful Episcopalians to their church homes and Episcopal properties to the mission of the church.”

But only one day after this prelate’s claim of ecclesiastical superiority came a unanimous decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. This decision, by all nine of the justices, was in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

By striking (and possibly devastating) contrast to the ruling of one Virginia circuit court judge – the nation’s highest court recognized “‘A ministerial exception’ to employment discrimination laws saying that churches and other ministerial groups must be free to choose and dismiss their leaders without government interference.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the Court’s opinion, stated:

“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.”

Chief Justice Roberts devoted several pages of his opinion to a history of religious freedom in Britain and the United States, 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 selection of their leaders in particular.

“The Establishment Clause prevents the government from appointing ministers,” he wrote, “and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.”

Justice Roberts also wrote:

“We cannot accept the remarkable view that the religion clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.”

The case was brought to the Supreme Court by Ms. Perich, who had been a teacher at a school in Redford, Mich., that was part of Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the second-largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S.

Ms. Perich said she 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.

Instead, the Court looked to several factors. Ms. Perich was a “called” teacher who had completed religious training and whom the church had considered a religious minister. She was fired, the school said, for violating religious doctrine by pursuing litigation rather than trying to resolve her dispute within the church.

The New York Times quoted Bishop William E. Lori, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ad hoc committee for religious liberty, who called the ruling “a great day for the First Amendment. 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.”

“It is enough for us to conclude in this, our first case involving the ministerial exception, that the exception covers Perich, given all the circumstances of her employment,” Chief Justice Roberts said.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which argued the case before the Supreme Court, called it “the most important religious liberty case in 20 years.”

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