Supreme Court unanimously rejects government oversight of churches

Outside 16 of the Supreme Court in Washington DC during the courts ruling in favor of legalizing gay marriage on June 26 2015 Credit Addie Mena CNA 6 26 15 The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. | CNA.

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Jan. 11 to uphold the "ministerial exception" that allows religious organizations to hire and fire ministers without interference from the government.

The decision marks a "big rejection of this administration's treatment of religious liberty," said Mark Rienzi, an attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which helped represent Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church in the case.

Rienzi told CNA on Jan. 11 that the Hosanna-Tabor case is "easily the most important religious freedom case in the last 20 years."

In Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, teacher Cheryl Perich claimed that she was illegally fired by Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich.

After being diagnosed with narcolepsy, Perich tried to return from disability leave but was told that a substitute had already been hired for the year. When she threatened to file a legal complaint, she was terminated from her position.

Perich claimed that she was fired illegally out of retaliation for threatening to take legal action. But Hosanna-Tabor said that Perich was dismissed on religious grounds because she acted against the church's commitment to internal dispute resolution.

Perich argued that her firing violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, and filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued Hosanna-Tabor.

In its defense, Hosanna-Tabor invoked the "ministerial exception," a principle drawn from the religion clauses of the First Amendment. It allows religious groups to make employment decisions free of government intervention.

The Supreme Court sided with Hosanna-Tabor in its Jan. 11 ruling, observing that requiring a church to keep an unwanted minister "interferes with the internal governance of the church" by preventing it from selecting "those who will personify its beliefs."

The decision was centered around the designation of Perich as a "minister," a finding that was rejected by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in an earlier ruling. 

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the "ministerial exception is not limited to the head of a religious congregation" but applied to Perich's position as well. 

In making its decision, the court noted that the Hosanna-Tabor employed both "lay teachers" and "called teachers." Perich was employed as a "called teacher," meaning she was regarded as having been called to the position by God.

In addition, the court observed that Perich was "commissioned as a minister" and that she taught religion classes in addition to secular subjects. She also led students in regular prayer and devotional exercises.

Rienzi said the ruling could have far-reaching consequences.

He said that the Obama administration has consistently held a "stingy view" of what qualifies as religion under the law.

This view is exemplified in the very narrow religious exemption permitted by the Health and Human Services mandate requiring health insurance providers to cover contraception, he said.

By unanimously upholding the rights of religious groups, the court has struck a "very big blow" to the administration's narrow definition of religion, which it described as "extreme," "remarkable" and "untenable," Rienzi said.

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He explained that the decision could have "ripple effects" as courts continue to examine the contraception mandate and other decisions by the Obama administration dealing with the freedom of religious organizations.
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Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, chairman of the U.S. bishops' ad hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, hailed the court's decision as "a victory for religious liberty and the U.S. Constitution."

"Freedom of Religion is America's First Freedom and the Court has spoken unanimously in favor of it," he said. "The Founding Fathers would be proud."

Bishop Lori said that the ruling "makes resoundingly clear the historical and constitutional importance of keeping internal church affairs off limits to the government."

He observed that the ability of churches to choose their ministers is important because "whoever chooses the minister chooses the message." 

"It is a great day for the First Amendment," he said.

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