Court Says Churches Can Choose Leaders
Special Report - January 13, 2012
Churches have the right under the First Amendment to hire or fire their own ministers without the interference of the government’s employment discrimination laws, according to a landmark decision handed down Wednesday by the United States Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the unanimous decision, which involved what the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty describes as the “most important religious liberty case” before the high court in 20 years. Attorneys with the Becket Fund and Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia Law School defended the church, Hosanna Tabor, against the government in the lawsuit, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
According to the Supreme Court decision in the case, the question considered by the high court involved “whether the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar [employees who have been wrongfully terminated from suing their employers for reinstatement or damages] when the employer is a religious group and the employee is one of the group’s ministers.” The Supreme Court answered, “yes” to that question in its 9-0 decision issued on January 11, concluding that, “We cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.”
According to a Becket Fund brief on the case, the lawsuit began in 2004 after Cheryl Perich, a teacher and commissioned minister at Hosanna-Tabor School, was “dismissed for insubordination and disruptive conduct and threatening to sue the church.” Perich filed a complaint with the EEOC, and the EEOC and Perich brought a lawsuit against the church, seeking to get her reinstated. The church argued that it had a right to choose its own religious leaders under a rule known as the “ministerial exception,” which the Becket Fund defines as “a constitutional rule that says when someone performs important religious functionslike a pastor, priest, or rabbithat person cannot sue the church and force it to reinstate him as a minister” using employment discrimination laws. The lower courts and a federal trial court agreed with the church on that point, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that Perich was not a minister and therefore the “ministerial exception” did not apply. The Becket Fund appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, and while the case was pending, the EEOC and Perich argued in briefs to the court that not only did the “ministerial exception” not apply in Perich’s firing, but also that there should be no “ministerial exception” at all for churches.
The Supreme Court disagreed with the EEOC on both counts, and held that Perich was a minister and covered by the exemption because of “the formal title given Perich by the Church, the substance reflected in that title, her own use of that title, and the important religious functions she performed for the Church...”
“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,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the court’s opinion. “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.” Justice Roberts concluded, “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. 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. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.”
In a statement, Luke Goodrich, Deputy National Litigation Director at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said, “The message of today’s opinion is clear: The government can’t tell a church who should be teaching its religious message. This is a huge victory for religious freedom and a rebuke to the government, which was trying to regulate how churches select their ministers.”
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