Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
I’ve been following this case with great interest, because I’m very high on the ‘wall of separation’ between church and state, and am very critical of fellow christians who work to get more church in the state. The obvious corollary, I tell them, is that you invite more state into your church.
Like, for example, in the case above, neatly summarized by the nice folks at SCOTUSblog.
As long ago as 1972, the federal appeals courts accepted the idea that the Constitution’s religion clauses, in the First Amendment, protected religious organizations’ right to make their own decisions about hiring or firing their clergy, without limitations from laws against discrimination in employment. The Supreme Court chose not to review the first of those decisions, and it has never ruled explicitly that there was such an exception in the Constitution. Even so, all 12 federal appeals courts with the authority to hear such cases, and ten state supreme courts, now agree that the exception does exist, and that it at least applies to pastors, priests, and rabbis — those who obviously pursue religious vocations, ministering to the followers of their faiths. Thus, this is called the ‘ministerial exception.’ But the agreement largely ends at what might be called the professional pastoral level. There is widespread disagreement on how deep into the payroll and staff of a religious institution the exception applies. That disagreement is what the Supreme Court is about to confront.
In July 1999, [petitioner] was hired to teach for a Lutheran organization, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church, in a kindergarten through eighth grade school that the church operated in Redford, Mich. (The school has since closed because of financial problems.) Its sponsors described the school as offering a ‘Christ-centered education based on biblical principles.’ That school had two categories of teachers: those who taught under contract, in the same way that public school teachers do, and those who were deemed to have been ‘called,’ in a religious sense, to teach at the school. A teacher who has completed a specific training course at a Lutheran college is deemed to be a ‘called’ teacher, and is designated as a ‘commissioned minister.’ That is the category at issue before the Supreme Court.
Ms. Perich joined the small faculty of the Redford school as a contract teacher, to teach kindergarten. The next year, she completed the required religious studies and became a ‘called’ teacher, but with no change in her teaching duties. After three years leading kindergarten classes, she moved into teaching third and fourth grades. Using secular textbooks, she taught math, language arts, social studies, science, gym, art and music. Later in court, she would say that she could remember only two occasions in which she introduced any religious ideas into teaching those subjects. However, she did teach a 30-minute religious class four days a week, and attended chapel with her class once a week for 30 minutes. She led her class in prayer three times a day, for five or six minutes each. Twice a year, she took her turn, with all teachers, contract and ‘called,’ in leading chapel services. In her final year at the school, the class under her leadership engaged each day in a brief devotional activity.
Her legal case had its origin in June 2004, before the opening of the next school term. She suddenly became ill during a sports outing, and was hospitalized. She was ultimately diagnosed with narcolepsy. The symptoms of that disorder can include sudden and deep sleeps from which the patient could not be awakened easily. While Ms. Perich gave several dates for returning to work, each passed without her doing so. The school later insisted that it tried for a semester to save her job, but then decided it had to hire a replacement for the ensuing semester.
With no definite resolution of her medical situation, school officials in January 2005 decided to ask her to give up her ‘call,’ and resign. Such a release is itself considered a religious act, with each side agreeing to the ‘peaceful’ rescission of the call. Ms. Perich refused, and obtained a note from her doctor saying she could return to teaching in February. The school told her that there was no place for her, since the hiring of a replacement teacher. The school officials also insisted that they remained concerned about her physical health. She showed up at school on the day the doctor had designated for her return, but was turned away. She threatened to sue, and officials warned her that that would violate the church’s policy that conflicts within the staff be resolved internally. Her ‘call’ was shortly rescinded by the school, accusing her of insubordination and disruptive behavior by damaging the relationship with the school. Ms. Perich took her case to the EEOC, which sued the school under the ADA, charging retaliation for her assertion of her rights under that Act. She joined in the case, making her own claim of retaliation under the Act. The legal claims sought her reinstatement as a ‘commissioned minister,’ back pay, damage payments, and a court order for the school to change its policies.
Predictably, the SCOTUS made clear what this administration should already have known. Designated ministers such as the respondent in this case who spend significant time learning, training and working to earn the commission of ‘minister’ (or rabbi, priest, etc.) are ostensibly, voluntarily and transparently committing to live by the rules of their religion. They can’t just turn to the state bureaucracy to bail them out if they break the rules of the house.
In this case, the “rule of the house” is the longstanding rule wherein Lutherans handle their conflict internally, believing it unbiblical to sue each other in a secular court of law.
Also predictably, outlets from the WSJ to the WaPo to the NYT reacted favorably enough to the ruling, again, because it’s fairly well understood that the state can’t choose ministers.
Apparently it didn’t occur to the EEOC that you’re not allowed to tell churches who it and is not allowed to ordain as a minister. I’m sure they wouldn’t appreciate the church telling them to hire only Lutherans. Seems that christians aren’t the only ones to occasionally adopt a one-way view of the First Amendment.
This, unfortunately, puts the Justice Dept. in the intellectual vicinity of some further-left folks such as the rubes at the American Atheist and American Humanist association, who had the temerity to assert that the state can indeed tell the church it can’t discriminate during hiring (although they apparently lack the stones to sue Catholics and Muslims to hurry up and ordain women already…). Honestly, their brief starts out with a One of the foundational principles of a just society is the rule of law. OH…silly me, i thought this was a case about the first amendment. Sure, they eventually get to the 1st, but only with a weak “the ADA already covers religious institutions, so the 1st Amendment doesn’t apply”. Huh. Never knew that I could discard whole sections of the constitution as long as i made a law to ‘cover it’. Idiots.
Also idiotic is the concern that this is some limitless loophole for religious organizations to break the law at will, when the opinion clearly outlines the limit of the freedom it assigns to religious institutions:
The EEOC and Perich also contend that our decision in Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U. S. 872 (1990), precludes recognition of a ministerial exception. In Smith, two members of the [*15] Native American Church were denied state unemployment benefits after it was determined that they had been fired from their jobs for ingesting peyote, a crime under Oregon law. We held that this did not violate the Free Exercise Clause, even though the peyote had been ingested for sacramental purposes, because the “right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).” Id., at 879 (internal quotation marks omitted).
It is true that the ADA’s prohibition on retaliation, like Oregon’s prohibition on peyote use, is a valid and neutral law of general applicability. But a church’s selection of its ministers is unlike an individual’s ingestion of peyote. Smith involved government regulation of only outward physical acts. The present case, in contrast, concerns government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself. See id., at 877 (distinguishing the government’s regulation of “physical acts” from its “lend[ing] its power to one or the other side in controversies over religious authority or dogma”). The contention that Smith forecloses recognition of a ministerial exception rooted in the Religion Clauses has no merit.
Thank God the atheists here at LGF are a good lot, unlike the amici above (with amici like these, who needs…nevermind). And I doubt that Obama himself is so hostile to religion that he’d sign on to the thinking that the state is allowed to designate ministers by proxy. Still, his employees at the EEOC and Justice Dept. managed to unite all nine justices in opposition to their position. Nothing says “you really don’t get it” like 9-0.