Landmark Supreme Court ruling a 'resounding win' for religious groups
The Supreme Court decides unanimously that the First Amendment bars government interference in a religious group's decision to fire a minister. Critics say the ruling protects religious groups that fire people for the most venal reasons.
In an important decision affirming the separation of church and state and the freedom of religious groups to manage their own affairs, the US Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that religious organizations are shielded from discrimination lawsuits filed by members who are engaged in ministerial functions.Skip to next paragraph
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In a unanimous decision, the high court said the First Amendment bars government interference in the authority of a religious group to determine for itself who will minister to the faithful.
At issue was whether a parochial school teacher fired by the Lutheran congregation that ran her school, could bring a discrimination lawsuit against the church.
After determining that the teacher performed significant religious duties and thus qualified as a minister, the court found that the employment relationship between church and minister was off limits to the government and to the courts.
If the church is free to select its ministers, the court reasoned, it must also be free without government interference to fire those the church deems unworthy to be ministers.
The decision marks the first time the high court has recognized a so-called “ministerial exception,” although every federal appeals court has upheld such an exception.
“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. “But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.”
The chief justice added: “When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose who will guide it on its way.”
Applause and criticism
Notre Dame Law Professor Rick Garnett said the decision was a “resounding win for religious liberty,” and “one of the Court’s most important church-state decisions in decades.”
“This case is highly significant because it reminds us all that the separation of church and state is an important mechanism for protecting the liberty of all – believers and nonbelievers alike,” he said in a statement.
Others saw the ruling as a step backward. The Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the decision affirms a right of religious groups to ignore antidiscrimination laws in some cases.
“Clergy who are fired for reasons unrelated to matters of theology – no matter how capricious or venal those reasons may be – have just had the courthouse door slammed in their faces,” Mr. Lynn said in a statement.
Details of the case
The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by Cheryl Perich, a former teacher at the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich. Ms. Perich claimed in her suit that she was fired in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Perich was employed as one of seven teachers at a K-8 school run by the local Lutheran church. The school had roughly 80 students.
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