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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Supreme Court Upholds 'Ministerial Exception' in Landmark Victory for Religious Freedom


In a landmark January 11 decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that religious bodies should set their own standards for hiring ministers, free from government interference. 

The unanimous decision in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC was described by Douglas Laycock, who successfully argued the case before the high court, as a “huge win for religious liberty.” 

The Hosanna-Tabor case was the result of a discrimination lawsuit, filed by a woman who claimed that she had been wrongly dismissed by the Michigan Lutheran congregation. The Supreme Court ruled the congregation was exempt from such an anti-discrimination suit. The ruling indicated that the First Amendment to the US Constitution, in its guarantee of religious freedom, means that a religious body should “be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.” 

Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts explained that the government’s interest in preventing discrimination is important. “But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.”

The case upholds the legal tradition the “ministerial exception”—the understanding that secular courts should not judge the standards by which religious bodies select their own ministers. The January 11 ruling left unsettled the related question of which employees of religious institutions may accurately be described as ministers rather than ordinary employees. 

The Obama administration, arguing for the plaintiff in the Hosanna-Tabor case, had taken an aggressive stand in favor of government intervention in the affairs of religious bodies. During oral arguments in October, Justice Stephen Breyer had observed that the government’s argument seemed to allow for a discrimination case against the Catholic Church, for excluding women from priestly ordination. 
 
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