WASHINGTON-In one of the clearest rulings for religious freedom in years, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided that courts may not intervene in church hiring decisions, protecting the "ministerial exception" that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sought to eliminate in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.
"[T]he authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful is the church's alone," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court's opinion. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Elena Kagan wrote separate concurring opinions that said the ministerial exception should be even broader than Roberts allowed in his opinion.
"It was a strong rebuke to the extreme position taken by the Obama administration," said Luke Goodrich of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who served as counsel to the church in the case. "One of the biggest things is it's unanimously decided, which nobody was predicting and is a really big deal. … It's a great day for religious liberty."
Assistant Solicitor General Leondra Kruger had argued before the court that the church school should only have the protection of freedom of association, the same protection that a labor group has. The court in its opinion characterized that argument as both "remarkable" and "extreme," noting that the Constitution outlines specific protections for religion beyond those for a labor organization. Religious cases before the Supreme Court often center on the tension between the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution and the Establishment Clause, but Roberts wrote that in this case, both clauses protect the Lutheran school from government interference.
The high court has never ruled on the ministerial exception before, a standard created in the lower courts, and the opinion shied away from defining who qualifies as a "minister," saying simply that the teacher in question, a commissioned minister at the Lutheran church school, qualified.
"We are reluctant … to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister," Roberts wrote in the decision. Kagan and Alito, in their concurring opinion, wrote that the "title" of minister "is neither necessary nor sufficient," given the variety of religions in the United States, but rather courts must defer to the religious organization's evaluation of the employee's role.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in favor of the teacher, saying she did not qualify as a minister because she spent more minutes of the day teaching secular subjects than religious subjects. The Supreme Court scoffed at that idea. "The issue before us … is not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch," Roberts wrote.
During the oral arguments, some of the justices seemed bothered by the facts of the case. The Hosanna-Tabor teacher, Cheryl Perich, had narcolepsy and took leave from the Redford, Mich.-based school, which is affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Perich eventually returned to work but the school didn't think she was ready to teach, and Perich threatened a lawsuit if the school did not reinstate her. The school revoked her commission as a minister and then fired her, on the grounds that she had circumvented the church tribunals that handle such disputes. (Alito, perhaps dryly, added 1 Corinthians 6:1-7 in the notes of his concurring opinion, verses that tell believers not to go before "the ungodly for judgment.")
"She was fired simply for asking for a hearing," Justice Anthony Kennedy said in the arguments. But the court's unanimous opinion said the question of whether the church used religious reasons as a pretext for firing Perich "misses the point of the ministerial exception," which requires courts to preserve churches' autonomy in selecting leaders.
The EEOC argued that a broad application of the ministerial exception would allow abuse by religious groups, like the hiring of children or undocumented immigrants. Roberts responded that churches are still subject to criminal prosecution, and that courts could consider other types of lawsuits regarding breaches of contracts, for example, "if and when they arise." But Roberts concluded, "The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way."