On Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down one of the most important decisions on religious liberty in recent decades. For the first time, the Court held that there is indeed a ministerial exemption that allows churches and religious organizations to discriminate in ways that other employers cannot. The Court’s decision was unanimous, and the affirmation of religious liberty and the right of churches to hire religious teachers without state interference is fundamentally important.
The case emerged when a teacher in a Lutheran church school in Michigan was terminated by the church. She sued, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] sided with her, bringing a suit against the church. The teacher was a “called teacher” in the church’s program, which meant that she had the responsibility to teach the church’s beliefs. The EEOC and lower courts had held that there is no ministerial exemption that would force the EEOC to drop the case. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts rejected that logic, calling the view put forth by the EEOC and the Obama Administration “remarkable.”
The Chief Justice reviewed the history of religious liberty in the United States and England, noting that the founders of the United States wanted to ensure that the state could not interfere in the churches’ hiring of ministers. Pointing to the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution, Roberts wrote: “The Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.”….
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