In a 9-0 decision the U.S Supreme Court has declared that the government may not second-guess a religious community’s decision about who should serve as ministers, teachers, or leaders even when employment discrimination issues are at stake. Why did the government even try this? Beats me. The unanimity of the decision, though, shows just how unreasonable the Court found the Obama administration’s argument.
Now you might ask, “Why do you care, Mogs?” Well, I teach the sole religion class my students take, so if they don’t “get religion” from me, with all its modern facets, they probably don’t get it at all. And since civics seems not to be as vital to those who create and execute high school lesson plans as, say, what kind of light bulbs Americans should use, my students generally have no idea how American courts work. So I try to clear up several mysteries with one stone, so to speak. This specific case interests me because it reinforces the idea that religious communities are different from other organizations. Had the Obama administration’s argument prevailed, the government could potentially insert itself into a variety of what we might think of as “EO issues,” such as an all-male priesthood, if it so desired.
By way of background, here’s what the First Amendment says about religion: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
The specific case involved the firing of a teacher at an Evangelical Lutheran school (Hosanna-Tabor) in Michigan. The teacher, who had developed narcolepsy, was on disability leave during the first part of the 2004-2005 year. When she notified the principal that she thought herself ready to return, he questioned whether she was actually ready to reassume her duties, and told her that the school had contracted for another teacher to complete the year. The congregation also offered to pay part of the teacher’s insurance premiums if she would resign her position.
When the teacher threatened to sue under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the congregation voted to rescind her call and the school sent her a letter of termination. The teacher filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) because she felt her rights under the ADA had been violated. The EEOC brought suit against Hosanna-Tabor, alleging that the teacher had been fired because she threatened a lawsuit. You can read the decision, and the maneuvering of lower courts, here.
The upshot of it all seems to be this:
(1) The so-called ministerial exemption, which precludes the government from becoming involved in who serves as ministers, leaders, or teachers, was upheld.
(2) This exemption holds regardless of whether or not those in these positions are ordained, and whether or not they spend the majority of their time in these services.
(3) This exemption also holds regardless of whether or not the issues at stake in the hiring or firing process are theological.
What does my non-lawyerly mind think of all this? Well, I’d like to know more details about the medical condition, I guess. I wonder why the teacher didn’t simply take the rest of the year off. And is it possible to “cure” or “control” the effects of narcolepsy so that the teacher could, indeed, function as a teacher? Given what I know now, I guess I find the congregation’s decision to fire the teacher, rather than wait out the school year, a bit uncharitable. But on the other hand, I guess I have to agree that it’s not the government’s role to get involved in this. Redress, if it comes at all, must come as the result of public displeasure rather than official sanction.
In any case, though, it’s interesting. And to be sure, I’m not a lawyer, I don’t play one on TV, and I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn last night. And of course, I don’t know all the facts. Other opinions, politely expressed, welcome…