Jan 11th, 2012 by Elizabeth Scalia
The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled unanimously in favor of a church’s right to be itself, and its freedom to assign its ministries:
This is an enormous and timely victory for religious freedom:
In a groundbreaking case, the Supreme Court on Wednesday held for the first time that religious employees of a church cannot sue for employment discrimination.But the court’s unanimous decision in a case from Michigan did not specify the distinction between a secular employee, who can take advantage of the government’s protection from discrimination and retaliation, and a religious employee, who can’t.It was, nevertheless, the first time the high court has acknowledged the existence of a “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws — a doctrine developed in lower court rulings. This doctrine says the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion shields churches and their operations from the reach of such protective laws when the issue involves employees of these institutions.
At the time the SCOTUS heard the case, it was noted that both Justices Scalia and Kagan had reacted with something like shock at the government’s constitution-shredding argument:
President Obama’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claimed during oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court last week that it can order a church to restore a fired minister to a teaching position.But that was a claim not even the president’s handpicked appointee, the very liberal Justice Elena Kagan, could accept as she and her colleagues considered Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. [...] The justices then rejected the argument of Leondra Kruger, Obama’s lawyer for the EEOC, who argued that there’s no ministerial exception in the Constitution, only the same rights that secular organizations possess to choose their own affiliations.At this, Scalia exploded. “That’s extraordinary! There, black on white in the text of the Constitution, are special protections for religion. And you say it makes no difference?”Kagan agreed with Scalia’s rejection of the argument that the First Amendment doesn’t protect churches from government ordering who they should hire as pastor or priest.
Given reports following the hearing, it’s not really shocking that the SCOTUS came down unanimously against the government’s case. But it’s reassuring, all the same.
Writing the court’s opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Allowing anti-discrimination lawsuits against religious organizations could end up forcing churches to take religious leaders they no longer want.”“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,” Roberts said. “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.”But, Roberts said, since this was the first time the high court has ever considered the “ministerial exception,” it would not set hard and fast rules on who can be considered a religious employee of a religious organization.“We are reluctant … to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister,” he said. “It is enough for us to conclude, in this, our first case involving the ministerial exception, that the exception covers (Cheryl) Perich, given all the circumstances of her employment.”
The Obama administration tested the waters with an extreme gambit. They’ve now established that this court, in its current make-up, will rule in favor of the churches against overt threats to the most fundamental of our religious freedoms. I expect that if Obama is re-elected, we’ll see continued–but measured–attempts to weaken religious freedoms, as it attempts to discern precisely where the lines are, and how they may be crossed. Chief Justice Roberts appears to acknowledge as much, in writing the opinion.
Meanwhile, this is very good–yes, reassuring–news.