A significant First Amendment religious freedom case which directly implicates the employment anti-discrimination laws was decided today by the Supreme Court. The issue placed squarely before the Court dealt with the tension between government and religion, the "wall” between them, and the possible “entanglement” between church and state.
In Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which we wrote about in our blog of October 6, 2011, the Court had before it a religious institution which employed a teacher who taught both secular subjects and a class in religion. She claimed to have a disability, and when she threatened to file a charge of disability when a new teacher was hired to replace her, she was fired for insubordination and because one of the tenets of the religious institution was that all disputes must be resolved internally and not in the courts.
At issue was the definition of “minister,” because” the “ministerial exception” holds, in effect, that the government should not get involved in internal church affairs involving “ministers,” and therefore courts should not become embroiled in lawsuits involving “ministers.” As we noted earlier, at oral argument last autumn, the Supreme Court justices asked many questions trying to figure out the limits of the “ministerial exception.” Indeed, Justice Breyer stated that “This is tough and I’m stuck on this.”
Writing for a unanimous Court that upheld the rights of the religious institution as against the employee, Chief Justice Roberts held that the religious institution must be free to choose its own ministers without state involvement. He stated that “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” but also that “so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.”