In a surprise decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, justices ruled in favor of church authority Wednesday, overturning a lower court ruling and concluding that the federal government should not intervene in the hiring and firing practices of churches.
In one of the most important religious cases disputed in years, also having separation of church and state implications, the high court accepted what is known as a "ministerial exception" to the employment discrimination laws.
The ministerial exception allows religious entities to give preference in employment to individuals of a particular religion or require that employees confirm the organization's religious tenants. It also bars the federal government from examining employment decisions by religious groups for employees with religious duties, such as pastors or ministry leaders.
Final arguments in the case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, were made in court on Oct. 5, 2011.
The legal dispute involved Cheryl Perich, a former fourth grade teacher at the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich. Perich was fired for insubordination and disruptive conduct in 2005. The church congregation that same year approved her termination.
Perich sued the school after she was fired, claiming discrimination.
The American Center for Law and Justice, which focuses on constitutional law, applauded the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The ACLJ filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, on behalf of itself and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA.
"This is a tremendous victory for religious freedom," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ. "The fact that the Court was unanimous underlines how essential a part of religious liberty is the principle that churches and synagogues get to select their religion teachers. Government has no business deciding who should or should not carry out religious ministry, and we're delighted the high court reached that conclusion."
The Alliance Defense Fund also commended the court’s decision.
"The Supreme Court was right to conclude that the government cannot contradict a church's determination of who can act as its ministers,” said ADF’s Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot.
“This clearly goes to the heart of the original intent of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. ADF has been pleased to represent this church and school in the trial court since the 6th Circuit handed down its opinion, and we commend The Becket Fund for its excellent work representing them before the Supreme Court."