Supreme Court keeps church job-bias disputes out of court, but leaves unanswered questions
“The court has unanimously confirmed the right of churches to select their own ministers and religious leaders,” he said.
The court’s recognition of the ministerial exception likely ends any chance members of the clergy and church leaders have to sue churches and other religious organizations for job discrimination, experts say. The U.S. Census identified 429,000 Americans as members of the clergy in 2010.
“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,” said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.
But there need to be future court rulings to spell out exactly which other church employees fall under this ruling, like teachers and instructors at religious schools. Some teachers will and some teachers won’t, said Rick Garnett, associate dean and professor of law at Notre Dame Law School.
“There are going to be some employee relationships involving religious institutions that are not religious at all, and those are not going to be covered” by the court’s ruling, Garnett said. “But there are going to be some that are religious, even if they are not ordained clergy, and they are going to be covered. The way the court put it was that some employees are essentially involved in the religious mission of the institution and those employees are covered.”
Judges will still have to decide which religious employees get protection and which ones don’t, Garnett said, something that could bring the issue of who gets protection back to the Supreme Court.