Friday, January 13, 2012

The Ministerial Exception

A couple  days ago, in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision that a teacher fired by a religious school could not sue her former employer for workplace discrimination because of the Constitution’s protection for religious freedom.  Although Cheryl Perich taught mostly secular subjects at her Michigan school, but she also taught some classes in religion and had received some religious training. This, in the eyes of the Court, justified a “ministerial exception” to government oversight of employment on the grounds that religious groups should be free from intervention by the state.
In an editorial, the New York Times has criticized the ruling for having an excessively encompassing conception of the ministerial exception and suggested that “it’s [the Court’s] sweeping deference to Churches does not serve them or society wisely.” I’m inclined to agree with the Court on this one and to disagree with the Times. The Americans with Disabilities Act, the anti-discrimination law that provided the grounds for Ms. Perich to sue when she sought to return to work after a period of sickness, was itself fairly sweeping in its extension of federal authority. The ministerial exception at least establishes some limits to that authority by excluding religious organizations and religious activities from federal interference.

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