The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold ministerial exception in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School renews the church’s power to maintain the integrity of its religious message in Christian institutions and houses of worship, a conservative attorney said.
When the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s claim to sue Hosanna-Tabor for firing former religious teacher Cheryl Perich, Attorney Mathew Staver said it also upheld the church’s right to control its religious message and protect it from government tampering.
“The church would no longer be the church if it had gone the other way,” he asserted. “The church would be basically dominated by government regulation and would lose its unique message and ministry.”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Hosanna-Tabor over what it believed to be a work dispute over an employer and a secular employee.
Perich, who had been diagnosed with narcolepsy, was fired shortly after she returned from extended leave. The EEOC argued she was a secular teacher teaching from secular texts. Perich, however, taught religion classes and led prayer services several times a day.
Critics say Wednesday’s ruling will shortchange employees wrongfully fired from religious institutions.
“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,” the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said.
However, Staver, chairman of the Liberty Counsel, said a court ruling affirming the EEOC’s power to restate Perich could have hindered a religious institution’s right to fire religious employees who teach and preach a religious message that is contrary to their faith in the future.
“A Baptist school would eventually no longer be a Baptist school, a Catholic school would no longer be a Catholic school, a Jewish synagogue would no longer be Jewish synagogue,” he said.
The Supreme Court voted 9-0 for ministerial protections, a gesture Luke Goodrich, a deputy national litigation director at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, says is “a huge victory for religious freedom and a rebuke to the government.”
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that the case was more than a mere employer-employee dispute and to treat it as such “intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.”
Now, Staver said, “If the church could not control the people who were communicating the religious message or a teacher, for example who is teaching in a Christian school, if they departed from the core teaching of the church or the religious institution, the school would be able to terminate under this ruling.”
He also said religious schools like Hosanna-Tabor will no longer have to spend precious resources on this issue.
The Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, president of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod The Court, applauded the ruling, saying, “The Court, in upholding the right of churches to select their own ministers without government interference, has confirmed a critical religious liberty in our country. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod places great emphasis on the religious education of its children and the important role of commissioned ministers in promoting our faith, so we are thankful that the Court has confirmed our church’s right to decide who will be serving as ministers in our churches and schools.”
He continued, “We also are thankful that this unanimous opinion will help secure the religious freedom of all religious organizations in America for years to come. Please keep the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in your prayers daily.”