The Privilege Of Religious Freedom

I don’t know when I’ve heard of a unanimous Supreme Court decision before. The ones I’m aware of are generally 5-4 or 6-3 splits. I seem to recall a 7-2 vote once, too. But a week ago or so the Court handed down a 9-0 decision, and I have to say, it was one of the most encouraging bits of news I’d heard in a long time.

Of course, I heard it more in passing than anything else. As key as this decision is, I’d think it would merit more than a fifteen second spot on the nightly news, but be that as it may, at least our Supreme Court justices, even the liberal ones, are willing to uphold the First Amendment.

Never mind that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was not so willing. We’ll concentrate on the good news.

The case in question involved a woman teaching in a Christian school. She had been ill and after some time on disability was diagnosed with narcolepsy, a “disorder that affects the control of sleep and wakefulness.” She was treated and reportedly was able to return to work without restrictions. Instead, the school apparently asked her to resign. One report said they had (understandably) hired someone else to replace her. She refused, threatened a lawsuit, and was consequently fired because school policy, consistent with the tenets of their denomination, requires disputes to be handled internally. Which, I might point out, is also consistent with Scripture.

She then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and won that, which gave her the right to file suit. The matter worked its way through the courts until it reached the Supreme Court. The question at hand:

Does the ministerial exception, which prohibits most employment-related lawsuits against religious organizations by employees performing religious functions, apply to a teacher at a religious elementary school who teaches the full secular curriculum, but also teaches daily religion classes, is a commissioned minister, and regularly leads students in prayer and worship?

Nine to zero, the answer came down: yes the ministerial exception does apply even though this woman’s teaching duties included only a 45-minute period of religious instruction.

As I see it, the conflicting values are these: an individual’s right to employment despite disability versus a religious organization’s right to employ who they think represents their beliefs, standards, and goals and who is willing to abide by their church’s teaching. Here, in part, is what Chief Justice John Roberts said in defense of the ruling:

“Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the free exercise clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the establishment clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.” (as quoted in “Supreme Court delivers a knockout punch to the White House” by Peter Johnson Jr.)

Why is this so significant? For several reasons. One, religious freedom is a Constitutionally protected right, whereas employment is not. That the current administration sought to force a religious institution to employ someone they wanted to fire would seem to indicate that some in government see other rights not protected by the Constitution as more important than religious freedom.

In addition, this case advances the idea that separation of church and state protects churches and their subsidiary institutions from interference by the state.

Third, the ruling protects churches who still believe that women shouldn’t be preachers, from gender discrimination lawsuits and those still viewing homosexuality as sin, from suits dealing with sexual preference discrimination.

Despite the 9-0 ruling, some in the media are voicing criticism (for example, the Metro Times and the Washington Post), as if this decision to let religious institutions set their own rules without the control of the government is somehow unwise and unhealthy for society. One critic suggests this ruling allows churches to engage in “blatant discrimination” which is “a social evil.” The implication is that social evils are to be eradicated even when they contradict Scripture, and this from someone with the title reverend in front of his name.

Well, I guess we can’t avoid the bad news even when we read about the good.

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