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Hands Off the ChurchA look at Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC

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Cheryl Perich was terminated as a teacher at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School when the congregation voted to rescind her “call.” The school has two categories for its teachers: “called” and “lay.” Called teachers receive the formal title of “Minister of Religion, Commissioned.”

The church’s letter cited “insubordination and disruptive behavior,” among other things, as grounds for termination, in part because of her threats to sue the school if she was terminated. Perich claimed she was fired because of a disability with which she suffered, and therefore, her firing was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Perich filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which in turn brought suit against the school for firing Perch in violation of the ADA. The District Court dismissed the suit, as it was barred by the First Amendment, under what is known as the “ministerial exception.”

Under the First Amendment, the “ministerial exception” bars claims between the employment relationship of a religious institution and its ministers.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit concluded that Perich was not a “minister” under the meaning of the exception, and therefore, they vacated and remanded the district court’s decision.

The implications of such a ruling would have been devastating to our religious freedom. Think about it; the bottom line in this case is that a church congregation made a determination on one of its ministers and you have the government, through the EEOC, second guessing that determination.

Could anything violate the “free exercise” of religion more than the government telling the church how to determine its ministers? Not only that, but such a ruling would also violate the “Establishment Clause” by virtue of the government’s involvement in, at least, “guiding” the business of the church.

You would think that organizations like the Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) would be all over this case to protect religious liberty. But once again, they showed their true colors and came out squarely on the wrong side of this issue.

They actually argued that the government should be able to second guess a congregation in the hiring and firing of their ministers. They argue that there should be no “ministerial exception,” because it “thwarts society’s interest in ending discrimination.”

Thankfully, a unanimous Supreme Court rebuked their flawed arguments.

Justice Roberts, writing for the unanimous Court, said that their position “is hard to square with the text of the First Amendment itself.” The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

And the Court was clear:

The Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar suits brought on behalf of ministers against their churches, claiming termination in violation of employment discrimination laws

This Court’s decisions in this area confirm that it is impermissible for the government to contradict a church’s determination of who can act as its ministers.

The Court explained the “ministerial exception” has been “uniformly recognized” since the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.

Perhaps most important of all, the Court made clear that the ministerial exception covers more than just the pastors or heads of religious institutions. In making that determination, the Court considered that the minister – in this case, the teacher – received significant training, conveyed the Church’s message, helped carry out its mission, and accepted a formal call to religious service.

The Court explained that the Sixth Circuit erred in concluding Perich was not a minister because it saw as irrelevant that she was a “commissioned minister,” put too much emphasis on the fact that “lay” teachers performed the same duties, and also gave too much weight to the fact that she performed secular duties.

Finally, the Court said it is erroneous to try to prove that the church’s religious reasons were pretextual.

The purpose of the exception is not to safeguard a church’s decision to fire a minister only when it is made for a religious reason. The exception instead ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful is the church’s alone.

The full impact of this decision will be felt far into the future, as we continue to see an increase in attacks on our religious liberties. The rise in support of homosexual “rights,” for example, provides fertile ground for more litigation in this area in the years to come.