This story is not getting nearly the airplay it deserves.
In a very rare unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled—against Obama’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—that religious organizations do, in fact, have the authority to determine who they employ and are protected by the First Amendment from government interference in this vital function.
First, the background. A Lutheran church in Michigan which runs a private school employs two types of teachers: called and lay. A called teacher must be a minister of the church, completing a specific course of theological study and being designated as an official church minister. Lay teachers have no such ministerial designation, and do not even have to be members of the Lutheran Church.
A called teacher developed narcolepsy, and was unable to teach for an extended period of time. The church, in the meantime, filled her position with a lay teacher. When she was ready to return to teaching, the church notified her that the position had been filled. Contrary to church rules for Lutheran ministers, which require that a minister with a complaint take such to an internal arbitration board, she threatened to (and eventually did) file suit in court. The church, in accordance with longstanding policy, removed her calling and terminated her employment.
To complicate matters, the teacher in question was originally hired as a lay teacher. She later specifically accepted the designation as a called teacher—a minister of the church. She spent six years of study, lay work, and church examination to attain that designation. She also claimed a special ministerial tax exemption for a housing allowance.
But I digress. The teacher, with the backing and legal representation of the Obama EEOC, claimed her employ was illegally terminated in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The church contended the firing was the result of violation of church policy regarding lawsuits vs. arbitration. The lower court sided with the church, but on appeal the EEOC prevailed with the argument that the ADA trumped the church’s First Amendment protection. The Supreme Court ruled against the appeals court in favor of the church.
The full decision is here. It’s very much worth a read, as the court eviscerates the EEOC case in under 40 pages while still managing to provide important historic context, precedent, and original arguments for the decision. Any time the SC hands out a unanimous decision against the administration, you know the White House has failed to grasp the meaning of the Constitution. This, of course, comes as no surprise to most of us.
If you refuse to read the whole decision, you should at least read Justice Roberts’ majority opinion. Thomas and Alito filed concurring opinions (with Kagan joining Alito—will surprises never cease!), but Roberts writes a masterful piece. Those of you on the Left who like to bash conservatives for their ignorance, lack of education, blah blah blah, should read Roberts’ decision and note that all of the liberals on the court (save Kagan) joined him with nary a comment. His portion goes back to the Magna Carta, and gives a masterful exposition on religious freedom over the ensuing millenium.
For those of you too lazy to read the court’s full decision, let me pull out some juicy snippets. (These are, by very nature, out of context. If you have a beef, read the dang thing!)
- The First Amendment provides, in part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Familiar with life under the established Church of England, the founding generation sought to foreclose the possibility of a national church. By forbidding the “establishment of religion” and guaranteeing the “free exercise thereof,” the Religion Clauses ensured that the new Federal Government—unlike the English Crown—would have no role in filling ecclesiastical offices.
- […] it is impermissible for the government to contradict a church’s determination of who can act as 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. 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. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.
- The Court cannot accept the remarkable view [of the EEOC] that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.
- The present case […] concerns government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.
You must not miss this one:
- Any suggestion that Hosanna-Tabor’s asserted religious reason for firing Perich was pretextual misses the point of the ministerial exception. The purpose of the exception is not to safeguard a church’s decision to fire a minister only when it is made for a religious reason. The exception instead ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful is the church’s alone.
Read that again. Its impact is vital to religious freedom in our nation!
- By forbidding the “establishment of religion” and guaranteeing the “free exercise thereof,” the Religion Clauses ensured that the new Federal Government—unlike the English Crown— would have no role in filling ecclesiastical offices. The Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.
- The “scrupulous policy of the Constitution in guarding against a political interference with religious affairs,” Madison explained, prevented the Government from rendering an opinion on the “selection of ecclesiastical individuals.”
- the First Amendment “permit[s] hierarchical religious organizations to establish their own rules and regulations for internal discipline and government, and to create tribunals for adjudicating disputes over these matters.”
To mollify Leftist readers, from (conservative) Roberts’ opinion:
The case before us is an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church’s decision to fire her. Today we hold only that the ministe- rial exception bars such a suit. We express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tor- tious conduct by their religious employers. There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances if and when they arise.
This is not carte blanche for religious organizations to discriminate against anyone for any reason at will.
- Religious groups are the archetype of associations formed for expressive purposes, and their fundamental rights surely include the freedom to choose who is qualified to serve as a voice for their faith.
- When it comes to the expression and inculcation of religious doctrine, there can be no doubt that the messenger matters.
- A religion cannot depend on someone to be an effective advocate for its religious vision if that person’s conduct fails to live up to the religious precepts that he or she espouses. For this reason, a religious body’s right to self-governance must include the ability to select, and to be selective about, those who will serve as the very “embodiment of its message” and “its voice to the faithful.”
Kudos to our Justices for that rare instance in which ALL agree in favor of the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.