Last week the Supreme Court issued a ruling involving the application of the 1st amendment with regard to a church hiring and firing those it considered ‘ministers’ within the church. The specific case concerned Cheryl Perich who worked as a teacher for a school run by the church. Fearing the school would fire her because of her narcolepsy, she began an effort to bring a claim to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The church had a policy that those who were working as ministers in the church were required to resolve disputes within the church. Because she was a trained minister in addition to being a teacher and because she brought the claim to the EEOC, Perich was subsequently fired.
The case, Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission arose as a result of the EEOC and the administration pursuing a lawsuit against the church on Ms. Perich’s behalf. As the New York Times put it, the reaction by religious groups to the Obama Administration’s support of the EEOC was as vociferous as one would expect:
Many religious groups were outraged when the Obama administration argued in support of Ms. Perich, saying this was evidence that the administration was hostile to historically protected religious liberties.
Indeed, those lining up on either side of the case read like a who’s who of cultural warriors – it was American Bible Society, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Rutherford Institute and Wallbuilders verses the People for the American Way, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Humanist Association and American Atheists. In many ways this was a strong test case for claim by secularists that the acceptance of their views about church and state are gaining ground. What most expected was the usual split decision with a slim majority falling on either side of the issue and no strong precedent being set. The resulting decision was virtually the opposite of this. In a rare 9-0 decision the Supreme Court dealt a stinging rebuke bot to the Obama administration and to secularists who would like to diminish the power of religious organizations to order their own affairs. It granted, via the clear wording of the 1st amendment a “ministerial exception,” – that the 1st amendment protects the right of religious organizations to hire, retain, and fire its own leaders in accordance with its own doctrines, not in accordance with the employment laws of the US government.
As Justice Alito put it in the decision, “The Constitution leaves it to the collective conscience of each religious group to determine for itself who is qualified to serve as a teacher or messenger of its faith.”
Given the 1st amendment’s clear prohibition against ‘prohibiting the free exercise’ of religion this result would seem obvious but this administration’s propensity for using its regulatory powers to impose it’s agenda on religious organizations and individuals is becoming its hallmark.
It’s good we still have courts to limit that overreach.