Supreme Court decision protects religious freedom

The Supreme Court last week delivered a resounding victory for religious freedom, made all the more impressive by its unanimity.

In a 9-0 decision, the court ruled that government cannot dictate to religious institutions whom they can hire or fire for leadership positions. That represented a convincing rejection of the Obama administration’s position, which was that churches should be treated no differently under federal and state employment discrimination law than secular employers.

Such laws ban discrimination in employment based on race, ethnicity, religion, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation and marital status. But many religious groups hold beliefs that are contrary to those standards (for example, the Catholic Church excludes women from the clergy and does not allow priests to marry).

Federal courts have repeatedly allowed what is called a “ministerial exception” to the law, which permits religious institutions to discriminate when selecting people to serve in positions of sectarian leadership, i.e., clergy and teachers (but not in secular jobs such as an accountant).

In the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Obama administration argued that the “ministerial exception” be eliminated, or at least be narrowly defined. The government claimed that a teacher suing Hosanna-Tabor after losing her job did not qualify as “ministerial,” thus her dismissal was covered by EEOC law.

The school, though, said her position is reserved for those with a “calling,” as opposed to lay teachers, and considers such “called” teachers as “commissioned ministers.” Indeed, they receive special religious instruction that lay teachers do not.

If the administration had prevailed, the government would have the power to determine how religious institutions defined their jobs — indeed, how they shape their messages of faith. The court, however, rightly ruled that that would violate the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

Writing the (unanimous) majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts affirmed the existence of a “ministerial exception,” and said that it is not limited to the head of a congregation. But the justices also declined to set a rigid standard defining the exception.

Roberts wrote: “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.” That, he wrote, infringes on the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause, “which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.”

Furthermore, the court ruled that giving government the power to determine who can minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause.

Too often, the First Amendment is viewed as protecting the public from the exercise of religion. It is reassuring to see all nine justices uphold the founding principle that the Constitution protects our religious freedoms from being infringed by government.