Supreme Court: Judges cannot get involved in church dispute

The US Supreme court, in a unanimous decision,  held that a religious employee of a church cannot sue for employment discrimination.

The case, which came before the court, resulted from a suit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Church and School of Redford Michigan.  The suit alleges that Hosanna-Tabor fired Cheryl Perich when she complained that she was being discriminated against because of a disability

The court failed, however, to specify the difference between a secular employee who can exercise their rights under federal discrimination laws and a religious employee, who cannot.

For the first time, the Supreme Court has acknowledged the existence of a doctrine known as  the “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws.  The doctrine states that the First Amendment’s freedom of religion guarantee protects churches and their operations against these types of lawsuit which involve their employees.

Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the court’s opinion believes that by allowing anti-discrimination lawsuits to proceed against religious organizations, the church would be forced to keep on religious leaders they no longer want.

The court’s decision closes the door for any future discrimination lawsuits against the church by their employees, no matter the conduct said the  Rev. Barry W. Lynn executive director of the Americans United. Even in matters of sexual harassment.

“Clergy who are fired for reasons unrelated to matters of theology, no matter how capricious or venal those reasons may be- have just had the courthouse door slammed in their faces,” Lynn said.

But Douglas Laycock, the attorney for Hosanna-Tabor believes it is a victory for religious freedom.  “The court has unanimously confirmed the right of churches to select their own ministers and religious leaders.”

According to Chief Justice Roberts, since this is their first ruling involving the “ministerial exception” doctrine, the court would not set rules on who would be considered a religious employee of a religious organization.

“We are reluctant to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.  It is enough for us to conclude, in this, our first case involving the ministerial exception, that the exception covers Perich, given all the circumstances of her employment.”