WASHINGTON (ABP) – A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled Jan. 11 that churches can fire their ministers for reasons that for other employers would be job discrimination.
The decision marks the first time the high court has recognized a “ministerial exception” in laws banning employment discrimination. Justices said the Constitution’s religion clauses bar the government from interfering in the employment relationship between a religious institution and 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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion. “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 court said requiring a Lutheran school to reinstate a school teacher fired in a dispute related to medical issues would violate both the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to select its own leaders, and the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in church-governance decisions.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati had ruled against Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich. While recognizing a ministerial exception, the appeals court found it did not apply to former teacher, Cheryl Perich, because her primary role was to teach about secular subjects and not religion.
The Supreme Court reversed that decision. While declining to adopt “a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister,” justices said the facts of Perich’s case were enough to prevent her from suing her employer under the ministerial exception.
The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which filed a brief in the case describing the ministerial exception as a “clear and crucial implication of religious liberty,” welcomed the ruling.
“It is a helpful decision explaining the important and unique way that the Constitution protects religious organizations in matters of internal governance,” said BJC General Counsel Hollyn Hollman.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, meanwhile, voiced disappointment over a decision they said takes the ministerial exception too far.
“Blatant discrimination is a social evil we have worked hard to eradicate in the United States,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “I’m afraid the court’s ruling today will make it harder to combat.”
Americans United also filed a friend-of-the-court brief noting that religious organizations have the right to limit employment to people who share their theology, but it should not extend to reasons unrelated to religion. Under the Supreme Court ruling, for example, AU argued that a pastor who objected to sexual harassment could be fired without any legal recourse for raising the issue.
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.