In one of the most important religious freedom cases to ever reach the Supreme Court, the court has sided unanimously with a church sued for firing an employee on religious grounds.
The unanimity of the decision serves as what can only be called an extraordinary rebuke to the Obama administration as the Court unanimously rejected its narrow view of religious liberty as “extreme,” “untenable” and “remarkable,” according to the Becket Fund which represented the church in this case.
“The message of today’s opinion is clear: The government can’t tell a church who should be teaching its religious message,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy National Litigation Director at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “This is a huge victory for religious freedom and a rebuke to the government, which was trying to regulate how churches select their ministers.”
The court’s opinion, issued today says that religious employers can keep the government out of hiring and firing decisions.
In the case of Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, Cheryl Perich, a teacher, argued that the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich., had discriminated against her under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
But the high court found that Perich was properly classified as a “minister,” meaning she falls within the “ministerial exemption” from many employment laws.
“The exception … ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful is the church’s alone,” the court found. In short, the church gets to decide who a “minister” is and who isn’t.
The court’s decision overturned an earlier ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Richard Garnett, a professor of law and associate dean at Notre Dame Law School, called the decision “one of the most important church-state decisions in decades.”
He wrote in Bench Memos:
Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion in Hosanna-Tabor Church v. EEOC vindicates clearly and strongly a crucial constitutional principle: The First Amendment protects religious liberty by forbidding governments from second-guessing religious communities’ decisions about who should be their teachers, leaders, and ministers.
Garnett also wrote this decision should serve as a reminder that the real reason of the separation of Church and state is to protect the Church from the state.
This case matters for many reasons, but especially because it reminds us all that the separation of church and state — when it is properly understood — is an important mechanism for protecting the religious liberty of all — believers and nonbelievers alike. Church-state separation is often misunderstood and seen as an anti-religious program, or as requiring that “religion” stay out of politics or public life. But this is not the point of church-state separation at all. The idea is to constrain government regulation, not religious expression and practice. Separation is an arrangement that protects religious authorities, institutions, and communities from unjustified interference by governments.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. The Becket Fund has a 17-year history of defending religious liberty for people of all faiths. Its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law.