The Supreme Court is taking up what some are describing as the most important religious liberty case in decades. And it involves a Lutheran school whose church fired a called teacher. From Notre Dame law school professor Richard Garnett:
In a nutshell, Hosanna-Tabor is a lawsuit brought by Cheryl Perich, a former teacher at a church-run Lutheran grade school who argues that the church violated a federal law against disability-based discrimination when it rescinded her “call” as a “commissioned minister” — and fired her as a third- and fourth-grade teacher, after a disability-related leave of absence.
A federal trial court in Michigan dismissed the teacher’s claim, insisting that the “ministerial” nature of her position and the religious dimensions of the church’s decision made it inappropriate to apply the anti-discrimination law. But the court of appeals disagreed and concluded that her “primary duties” — as a “commissioned minister” at a school that aims to provide a “Christ-centered education” from teachers who “integrate faith into all subjects” — were secular, and not religious.
The court gave little weight to the facts that the teacher led her students in prayer several times a day and taught religion classes four days a week, and instead simply compared the minutes she spent on religious formation with those she spent teaching “secular subjects.”
The Supreme Court should reverse this decision, and it is important to understand why.
For starters, it is well established that a “ministerial exception” to job-discrimination laws prevents secular courts from jumping into religious disputes that they lack the authority to address or the competence to solve. The question in the Hosanna-Tabor case is not so much whether the exception exists — it does, and it should — as how it should be understood and applied.
As the court of appeals recognized, this exception is “rooted in the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious freedom.” Indeed, a religious-liberty promise that allowed governments to second-guess religious communities’ decisions about what should be their teachings or who should be their teachers would be a hollow one.
Frankly, I’m confused about this, both legally and theologically. Is the church running roughshod over its own doctrine of the call, in effect demanding the religious liberty to ignore its own religious teaching? Is the state doing what the church should be doing, in enforcing the binding nature of the call? Would a legal win on the part of the church be a theological defeat? Or does this legal challenge unmask the confusion between the teaching office and the pastoral ministry? And should the state presume to define “church work” and “ministry,” denying the teacher that status because she teaches “secular” subjects?
Can anyone untangle these issues? And does anyone know anything about the disability issues being raised? Were there other factors in the congregation’s desire to dismiss this teacher? (Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church is an LCMS congregation in Redford, Michigan.) I mean, I can’t help but sympathize with the congregation being dragged before the court, but help me sort out not only the law but the theology and the church practice.