By Paula Schlueter Ross
The United States Supreme Court Jan. 11 issued an historic 9-0 decision in favor of a Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod church and school in Redford, Mich.
The decision marks the first time the Supreme Court has ruled that federal discrimination laws do not apply to employees of religious organizations who perform “ministerial” duties, including teaching religion.
In the case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, et al., a former commissioned-minister (teacher) at the now-closed Hosanna-Tabor school sued the school after she was dismissed in 2005 for “insubordination and disruptive conduct in violation of church teaching,” according to Hosanna-Tabor’s Petition for Certiorari.
The fourth-grade teacher, Cheryl Perich, sued the congregation for disability discrimination, claiming the church rescinded her call as a commissioned minister because of her narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that typically causes excessive daytime sleepiness.
A federal district court dismissed the case based on the “ministerial exception,” a First Amendment doctrine that bars lawsuits that would interfere in the relationship between a religious organization and employees who perform religious functions.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit later reversed the district court and ruled in favor of Perich, holding that the teacher had a predominantly “secular” role because she spent more time each day teaching secular subjects than religious ones.
In his opinion for the Supreme Court and its unanimous decision — which reverses the Court of Appeals ruling — Chief Justice John G. Roberts said that, in light of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion, “it is impermissible for the government to contradict a church’s determination of who can act as its ministers.”
Further, Roberts said, “Since the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other employment discrimination laws, the Courts of Appeals have uniformly recognized the existence of a ‘ministerial exception,’ grounded in the First Amendment, that precludes the application of such legislation to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers. The Court agrees that there is such a ministerial exception.”
The Supreme Court’s decision effectively bars future lawsuits brought by “ministers of religion” against their churches for violations of nondiscrimination laws.
Perich qualified as a “minister” of Hosanna-Tabor — and is therefore subject to the “ministerial exception” — Roberts wrote, since she served in “a role distinct from that of most of its members” and her “commissioned minister” title “represented a significant degree of religious training followed by a formal process of commissioning.
“Perich also held herself out as a minister by, for example, accepting the formal call to religious service. … As a source of religious instruction, Perich played an important part in transmitting the Lutheran faith.”
Sherri Strand of Thompson Coburn LLP, St. Louis, who served as co-counsel for Hosanna-Tabor along with Professor Douglas Laycock, of the University of Virginia, and The Becket Fund of Washington, D.C., told Reporter that the Supreme Court decision “upholding the right of churches to choose their own ministers and religious leaders without government interference is a landmark victory for religious freedom in America.”
Strand said the Court “not only recognized the ‘ministerial exception,’ a doctrine developed by the U.S. Courts of Appeals and grounded in the First Amendment, as barring certain claims by ministers against their religious employers, the opinion also went on to say that ‘requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister … intrudes more than on a mere employment decision, it interferes with the internal governance of the church.’
“Significantly, the Court held that invading the church’s right to select its own ministers would violate both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” she said.
Speaking Jan. 11 on behalf of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison said, “We are delighted with the opinion issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Hosanna-Tabor case today. 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,” he said, “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.
“We also are thankful that this unanimous opinion will help secure the religious freedom of all religious organizations in America for years to come,” Harrison added. “Please keep the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in your prayers daily.”
Ron Schultz, the Synod’s chief administrative officer, said, “We are very pleased with today’s Supreme Court opinion in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC and its affirmation of the ministerial exception under the religion clauses of the First Amendment.
“The unanimous opinion by the Court,” Schultz said, “presents a clear message that religious institutions are protected when making decisions that affect the faith and mission of the church.”
To download a 39-page PDF of the Supreme Court’s decision, click here.
Posted Jan. 11, 2012