Today your magistrate the United States Supreme Court refused to allow a civil rights statute to violate free exercise of religion or to establish religion by the government. In the big picture,
Throughout our Nation’s history, religious bodies have been the preeminent example of private associations that have “act[ed] as critical buffers between the individual and the power of the State.” [Concurrence by J. Alito with J. Kagan joining]
By forbidding the “establishment of religion” and guaranteeing the “free exercise thereof,” the Religion Clauses ensured that the new Federal Government—unlike the English Crown—would have no role in filling ecclesiastical offices. The Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own. [C. J. Roberts]
In this particular case, a woman was fired from a Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod school because she threatened to sue the church. The LC-MS considered it her Christian duty to resolve that intra-church matter without involvement of the courts. She claimed she was really fired in retaliation for asserting a right under the Americans with Disabilities Act that applied to her because she had narcolepsy. So the clash was between a church’s personnel decision and an alleged disability right.
But she wasn’t just any employee, and this is a fact to pay close attention to: she was a “called” teacher rather than a mere “lay” teacher. A called teacher has theological training and engages in certain ministerial functions more than lay teachers. That’s important because the First Amendment grants a “ministerial exception” that protects the church/minister relationship from legislative interference. And, going straight to the bottom line, the church won because the exception applied:
The case before us is an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church’s decision to fire her. Today we hold only that the ministerial exception bars such a suit.
Naturally, churches will be interested to know exactly who is covered by the ministerial exception. Could a LC-MS lay teacher have sued the church? Could a church school fire a principal without fear of becoming embroiled in civil rights litigation? The Court was unanimous in its holding, but there were two concurring opinions written to further discuss the nature of the ministerial exception. Justice Thomas would give broad discretion to churches; to him it would be enough for a church to have a “sincere belief” that an employee qualifies as a minister. To Justice Alito (with Justice Kagan) application of the ministerial exception would depend not on a title “but rather on [the] functional status as the type of employee that a church must be free to appoint or dismiss in order to exercise the religious liberty that the First Amendment guarantees.” So Justice Alito, though not quite as deferential as Justice Thomas, has a quite robust view of religious liberty.
The enforcement agency that sued the church was the EEOC, which did not impress the court. One might even say the Court “called them out:”
The EEOC…contend(s) that any ministerial exception “should be limited to those employees who perform exclusively religious functions.”… We cannot accept that view. Indeed, we are unsure whether any such employees exist. The heads of congregations themselves often have a mix of duties, including secular ones such as helping to manage the congregation’s finances, supervising purely secular personnel, and overseeing the upkeep of facilities…. the Sixth Circuit did not adopt the extreme position [italics added] pressed here by the EEOC…
Ouch. But overall it was another day to live in peace and be thankful for the wisdom of at least some of our judicial magistrates.