Religious freedom won a victory–and a unanimous victory, at that–today at the U.S. Supreme Court. According to the Washington Post:
The Supreme Court ruled for the first time Wednesday that federal discrimination laws do not protect employees of religious organizations who perform “ministerial” duties.
The court ruled unanimously that the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion dictates the organizations “be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.”
The case involved a Michigan schoolteacher who said Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church violated the Americans with Disability Act in 2005 when it fired her after she tried to return to work after being diagnosed with narcolepsy.
The church said Cheryl Perich was not fit for ecclesiastical office and that her threat to sue violated Lutheran teachings that disputes be handled within the church rather than in civil courts.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the court that such decisions are reserved to religious organizations.
“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Roberts wrote. “But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.
“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.”
This was a first, evidently, for the recognition of the religious exemption:
Wednesday’s ruling marked the first time the Supreme Court had acknowledged such an exception. Requiring a religious group to accept or retain unwanted ministers, the justices said, deprives the group of “control over the selection of those will will personify its beliefs.”
The Obama administration supported Perich in her suit, which suggests how far out of the mainstream it is on matters of religious freedom. The usual suspects, meanwhile, threw the expected hissy fit. Americans United belched:
“Blatant discrimination is a social evil we have worked hard to eradicate in the United States,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “I’m afraid the court’s ruling today will make it harder to combat.”
Thank God. The last thing I want is the government stepping into intra-church disputes to decide what constitute permissible and impermissible personnel decisions. Religious organizations practice “blatant discrimination” every day, unless they stand for absolutely nothing. Allow the state to dictate who they can and cannot hire and fire would be the end of the free exercise provision of the First Amendment.
Today’s decision, AU says, reinforces that unfortunate trend. Under the ruling, AU says, a house of worship would have the right to fire a minister for reasons completely unrelated to religion. A pastor who objected to being sexually harassed, for example, could be fired for raising that issue and have no recourse in the courts.
Roberts referred in his opinion to a “parade of horribles” that the EEOC and Perich (and likely AU in their amicus brief as well) imagined could happen if the Court ruled in favor of the school. According to the Post, “He said those questions could be addressed when and if they arise. ‘We express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct,’ he wrote.” So if AU hears about a pastor being fired because she objected to sexual harassment, Barry Lynn (who is also a lawyer) should provide her with pro bono assistance in filing suit.
“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,” Lynn said.
Near as I can tell, Lynn has never served a local church, which would explain how he could say something so detached from local church reality. Pastors are fired every day in this country for reasons that would seem to them to be capricious, venal, or downright evil. One might irritated the congregational patriarch, another might have put his congregation to sleep with his preaching, a third might not have visited the shut-ins often enough. Some of the reasons for which clergy are fired are good, some are bad, some are Satanic. And the state is incompetent to judge between them, especially when it comes to a secularist fetish such as “discrimination.”
The idea that the only firing offenses for clergy should be connected to “matters of theology” is like claiming that a manufacturer should be unable to fire a lazy or uncooperative employee if he happened to know how to run his machine. It’s an absurdity in business, and a recipe for state tyranny in religion. I’m delighted to see that the Supremes, conservatives and liberals alike could see that, even if an anti-discrimination fetishist such as Barry Lynn cannot.