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Most significant U.S. Supreme Court ruling on religion in 20 years?



Christianity Today reports:

In what some legal scholars were calling the most significant religion case in 20 years, the Supreme Court ruled today that a Lutheran school teacher was a “minister” who could not sue the church that fired her in 2005.
“The First Amendment provides, in part, that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,'” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the unanimous opinion. “We have said that these two Clauses ‘often exert conflicting pressures,’ and that there can be ‘internal tension … between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.’ Not so here. Both Religion Clauses bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.”
“This is a huge win for religious liberty,” said Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia Law School professor who represented the church at the Supreme Court’soral arguments in October. “The Court has unanimously confirmed the right of churches to select their own ministers and religious leaders. It has unanimously held that the courts cannot inquire into whether the church had religious reasons for its decisions concerning a minister. The longstanding unanimity in the lower courts has now been confirmed by unanimity in the Supreme Court.”
Today’s decision marks the first time the justices have considered what is widely knows as “the ministerial exception” to antidiscrimination employment laws. While the top court has never directly ruled on whether such a exception exists or protects religious organizations from lawsuits on such matters, Roberts noted, appellate courts “have had extensive experience with this issue.”

Read the full report.

  • Feedback
    It isn’t going to take long for teachers in religious schools to shun teaching in them as they will be second class teachers not protected by any federal/state employment laws such as workers compensation for on-the-job injuries, minimum wage, overtime rules etc. If such a teacher, I’d earn my main income teaching in a non-religious school, but volunteer for Sunday school to fulfill some religious mission.
    bobby norwich
    January, 11 2012

    I think Bobby’s comment above is over reaching a bit. This case dealt with a teacher who was also considered a “called” minister in the Lutheran church. If you read a detailed explanation of the case it was obvious that the justices focused on her position as a minister, not just an employee. I believe the justices made it clear that the ruling did not apply to a strict employee of a religious organization who would be protected by federal and state laws – such as workers compensation, minimum wage, etc. The justices ruled, however, that the state cannot dictate to a religious organization who it must hire or retain in terms of presenting it’s doctrine and message. In reading the ruling one must focus on the very tight language difference between “minister” and “employee.” It is tempting to read too much into this decision, but it I do find it fascinating that it was a 9-0 ruling. With today’s divisive court, that is pretty much a slam dunk against the teacher who brought the case!
    But, I must say, I am not a legal expert and so I could be wrong about my conclusions above. I just read the ruling quite differently from Bobby’s view (and some others, I might add).
    Paul Smith
    January, 12 2012

    Teachers at religious colleges have “ministerial” tax deductions they can claim.
    So, it has to come down: What do you want to be? A minister (and have the tax benefits associated with that role) or a teacher (And give up the tax benefits).
    You cannot claim to be both…
    Rudy Schellekens
    January, 12 2012

    Well, my understanding is that… to put an example: that if a church found out that their minister was practicing homosexuality (and didn’t repent), the church could fire him (because of the church’s doctrine) without the fear of being sued. If my understanding is right, then, this ruling is great, because I remember when a denominational church wanted to fire their minister because they found out that she was practicing *******ism (so of course, it was not a church of Christ congregation), and then after firing her, she sued and then the church took back their decision and kept her as a minister. �I know! �Pretty weird!, so of course, one could never know when would a “church of Christ minister” would consider that kind of life as not sinful; but just in case that happened, is good to hear that the church can fire him without the fear of being sued. Well, hope I understood well. May the peace of God be with you. -Elmer Pacheco
    Jos� Elmer Pacheco
    January, 12 2012

    The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. The case focused on on whether a teacher at a religious elementary school who teaches the full secular curriculum, but also teaches daily religion classes, can bring employment discrimination suits against the school, if fired. <a href=”http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/301939-1″ title=”The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC” rel=”nofollow”>C-SPAN</a>
    Ed Dodds
    January, 12 2012

    It is sinful for a brother to go to court against a brother anyway in front of the unbelievers. So why would a minister or an employee of a church or college want to sue his own brethren in defiance of Christ’s commands. Even though these people are not members of the Lord’s church, it seems as though they would at least try to respect what the Lord’s will is.
    1 Corinthians 6:5-7
    I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren?
    But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers.
    Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?
    Gary Hatmaker
    January, 13 2012

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