It’s been a monumental month in United States Supreme Court religious liberty decisions. First the court decided against hearing the Bronx Household of Faith’s appeal of a New York City Board of Education policy banning worship in public schools. Now the court has ruled that a teacher who taught religious classes at a Lutheran school was not protected under anti-discrimination employment laws because religious bodies have a right to hire and fire ministers as they see fit.
The Most Significant Decision in 20 Years
The New York Times reported that the Lutheran school decision may be the “most significant religious liberty decision in two decades” because, for the first time, it “recognized a ‘ministerial exception’ to employment discrimination laws, saying that churches and other religious groups must be free to choose and dismiss their leaders without government interference.”
The case against the school was brought by Cheryl Perich, who spent 45 minutes each day on religious instruction, but “was a ‘called’ teacher who had completed religious training and whom the school considered a minister.” The school said it fired her for pursuing litigation against it in violation of church teaching, The Times reported.
In an op-ed at CNN.com, the attorney for Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School said the decision was “a huge win for religious liberty.”
“Churches do not run the government, select government leaders, or set criteria for choosing government leaders. And government does not run the churches, select religious leaders, or set criteria for choosing religious leaders. The Court unanimously reaffirmed that principle on Wednesday,” said Douglas Laycock.
At USA Today, University of Notre Dame law professor and associate dean Thomas Messner said the ruling affirmed the “foundational principle” that “in a constitutional democracy like ours, secular governments lack the power to resolve religious disputes, to answer religious questions, or to select religious ministers.”
What About Sexual Abuse Reporting?
The Los Angeles Times reported that “lower courts have long recognized that churches are protected from lawsuits involving their internal workings.” But The New York Times noted that “at the argument in October, some justices expressed concern that a sweeping ruling would protect religious groups from lawsuits by workers who said they were retaliated against for, say, reporting sexual abuse.”
“Chief Justice Roberts wrote that Wednesday’s decision left the possibility of criminal prosecution and other protections in place. ‘There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances,'” The Times reported.
Peyote, Polygamy, and “Internal Church Decisions”
At Spiritual Politics, Religion scholar Mark Silk said, “The big deal is that two decades ago, the Court substantially undermined the constitutional right to free exercise in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), a 6-3 decision written by Antonin Scalia that held that two Native American drug counselors could not go to federal court to claim a religious right to sacramentally ingest peyote as part of their membership in the Native American Church.” The Smith decision referred back to an 1878 decision in which the Supreme Court “turned down the Mormon claim to have a free exercise right to polygamy,” Silk noted.
“Maybe ingesting peyote is an outward physical act distinguishable from being employed or not employed as the result of ‘an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.’ But anyone who knows anything about Mormon theology knows that the LSD Church’s embrace of polygamy–‘plural marriage’–was an internal church decision that affected its faith and mission profoundly. … The bottom line is that, having been forced by the Justice Department to confront Smith directly, the conservatives on the Court significantly walked the Scalia doctrine back,” Silk concluded.
More Pastors Protest Eviction from NYC Public Schools
Meanwhile, reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s other big religion decision regarding worship in New York City public schools continues to heat up. Thursday, 13 pastors and 30 lay people were arrested as they held a prayer rally at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s State of the City address, according to A Journey Through NYC Religions. The New York Times barely noticed.
What Do You Think?
Are these decisions good for religious liberty or do some of their implications concern you?