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In a landmark decision handed down on January 11, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that church employees do not have the right to sue the religious institutions that hire them under Federal workplace anti-discrimination laws. The lawyers at the Office of General Counsel for the Seventh-day Adventist Church hailed the decision as a triumph for religious liberty. In a statement published by the Adventist Review, church officials expressed their pleasure.
The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists welcomed the court’s unanimous decision. As one of many religious organizations that filed friend of the court briefs in support of the Lutheran run church school, we are pleased with the outcome. For the Adventist Church in the United States this means courts will not be second-guessing the hiring and firing of our pastors and teachers. No longer can the church be hauled into court when it dismisses a pastor or teacher for immoral conduct or straying from the teachings of the church. Rather, the church is free to make these decisions without fear that a secular judge and jury will decide it was instead pretext for an improper motive.
Other close observers of the Hosana-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, however, have raised troubling questions about the justice and the wisdom of the ruling. Garrett Epps summarizes the facts of the case in The Atlantic:
When Perich [a teacher at Hosana-Tabor Lutheran school] became sick with narcolepsy, she took leave to try to stabilize her condition. Six months later, when she said her doctor had cleared her to work again, the school told her she had been replaced for the school year and that if she showed up for work she'd be dismissed. She responded that her dismissal might violate the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act], and that she had spoken with an attorney about her rights under the act. The school then fired her, saying she had violated a Lutheran religious policy of keeping disputes out of the secular courts. Take religion out of the picture, and you've got a pretty open and shut case of discriminatory retaliation, which the statute plainly forbids.
The case, it turns out, has nothing to do with freedom of conscience and everything to do with the power of religious institutions to act with impunity toward their workers in the name of what lower courts have upheld as “ministerial exceptions.” Although Perich’s primary teaching responsibilities were not religious in nature, she did have ministerial credentials and was involved in some aspects of the religious life of the school. The Supreme Court declared that this barred Perich from challenging Hosana-Tabor’s employment decisions according to normal legal standards of justice that apply elsewhere.
Although it is not clear what the implications of the ruling will be in future cases, church employees who are deemed “ministers”, it now appears, will no longer have recourse to the law even in the face of blatantly discriminatory and retaliatory behavior by churches. What is more, churches may now hire and fire their ministerial employees for reasons having nothing to do with church doctrines or beliefs.
Contrary to the General Conference’s celebratory declarations in support of the Lutheran school’s victory in firing a sick teacher without regard for the Americans with Disabilities Act, this case will not keep future religious employment cases out of the courts but instead greatly increase them. The decision of the Court, written by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., provided no guidance to courts as to how to decide who counts as a “minister.” The Court was, he said, “reluctant to adopt a rigid formula.” As Epp observes, “the chief justice of the United States sounds like a good-hearted waitress at a Southern diner—'Y'all come back now, hear?’”
The General Conference is in good company, however, in its enthusiasm for the ruling. Adventists now stand closely aligned with the Catholic Church on the meaning of “religious liberty” in perhaps the most important church-state decision in the past 20 years. Bishop William E. Lori, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, declared: “[The ruling is] a great day for the First Amendment...This decision makes resoundingly clear the historical and constitutional importance of keeping internal church affairs off limits to the government—because whoever chooses the minister chooses the message.” Six of the nine Supreme Court justices, including three of the four who wrote opinions in the case, are Catholics.
By contrast, Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State—an organization that Adventists helped to found in 1947-48 but which they withdrew from in the 1990s out of a desire to pursue Federal funding for their schools—pointed out that the ruling might well have disastrous effects in many areas, including barring suits against religious institutions from pastors and teachers who experience workplace harassment. “Blatant discrimination is a social evil we have worked hard to eradicate in the United States,” Lynn declared. “I’m afraid the court’s ruling today will make it harder to combat.”
A woman was fired not for immoral conduct or doctrinal disagreements but because she challenged her religious employer's right to discriminate against her on the basis of an illness. The Adventist Church aligned itself with Catholic Bishops and conservative Catholic judges in siding with her employer, issuing lofty rhetoric about a triumph for religious liberty. What the Church has in fact sided with is the principle that religious institutions are above or beyond basic principles of legal justice that others must abide. The decision may have marked a great day for power—both the power of the government to make decisions about religious matters (as the courts will now determine who is or isn’t a “minister”), and the power of church bureaucracies to hire and fire as they will. One thing it was not was a glorious day for personal freedom of conscience or for people faced with painful realities of sickness and job loss such as Perich, who by every indication was discarded when she was no longer useful to a dehumanizing officialdom operating in the name of religious piety.