Earlier this month religious people of every stripe scored a major victory against the Obama administration when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC. It’s quite astonishing what the administration was trying to pull, even from that bunch: they asserted that the government has the power to dictate to a church who its ministers will be.
The case involved a woman, Cheryl Perich, who was hired as a “called teacher” at the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church. The position carried the official title of “Minister of Religion, Commissioned.” Perich became ill and was unable to begin work on schedule. Part way through the year, Perich reported for work, but the church disputed whether she was really ready to return to work. At this point, according to the church, Perich behaved badly and was dismissed.
Perich filed a claim with the EEOC, which agreed with her and filed suit. The lower court ruled in favor of the church, finding that the ministerial exception prevented the case from going forward. The exception, which is grounded in the First Amendment, says that the government cannot regulate a church’s choice of ministers. However, the court of appeals vacated the decision, finding that the position of “called teacher” is not really a minister.
The appeals court’s position that some church ministers weren’t really ministers was troubling, but then the Obama administration dramatically raised the stakes. The Justice Department filed a brief arguing that there should be no ministerial exception at all! (This position was even more radical than the one taken in the atheists’ brief.)
Instead, the DOJ argued that churches must rely on the same freedom of association that protects all Americans. Freedom of association has been shown to be a porous “freedom” offering very little protection, which is precisely what the administration intended.
The Supreme Court rejected the administration’s radical contention 9-0, observing:
Their position, however, is hard to square with the text of the First Amendment itself, which gives special solicitude to the rights of religious organizations. The Court cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.
The court also found that Perich was a minister covered by the ministerial exception.
A more brazen attempt to undermine the First Amendment can hardly be imagined. Let’s please not have any more nonsense about this president’s respect for civil liberties. He is quite the opposite.
(Via Bench Memos.)
UPDATE: It should be obvious that giving the government any foot in the door in regard to churches’ choice of ministers is inimical to religious freedom. In case it isn’t, this article explains how even anti-discrimination law could be leveraged into a substantial burden on religious freedom.