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Jan 11 2012

Supreme Court reaffirms churches right to discriminate

By Frederick Sparks

In their infinite wisdom, the Supremes have decided that the long recognized “ministerial exception”, which bars employment discrimination claims by ministers against churches, also applies to anyone within a church who “holds a title representing a significant degree of religious training followed by a formal process of commissioning”, has “accepted the formal call to religious service”,  and has  “job duties reflected a role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out it’s mission.”

The plaintiff in the case was a Lutheran school “called Teacher” (distinguished from lay teachers)  who developed narcolepsy and took a medical leave.  At the end of the leave she notified the school that she would be returning and was told her position had been filled by a “lay teacher”.  She subsequently filed claim with the EEOC under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The school/church raised the ministerial exception, with which the District Court agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of the school.  After the 6th Circuit claimed the ministerial exception was applied to the plaintiff in the lower court too broadly, the supreme court “clarified” the issue in favor of the school.

In addition to this troublesome expansive definition, the ministerial exception in its previous form rested on a specious Free Exercise basis.  Understandable if a minister (or minister-lite) questions or contradicts the tenets of the faith.  But to bar discrimination claims on grounds not having to do with religion is another example of excessive deference to free exercise.

 

4 comments

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  1. 1
    blackskeptics

    It is a tacit endorsement of Christian fascism pure and simple. Another example of the activist court’s granting of affirmative action to organized religion.

  2. 2
    Jeff Johnson

    I can’t claim to know enough about the law to judge this decision. Of course as an atheist I do not like seeing churches receive special privileges. But the arguments under the freedom of religion guarantees of the first amendment may be strong enough to justify this decision on strict legal merits.

    But this does at least weaken the claims of religion to be a force for good in society. If they reserve the right to discriminate and to deny people the protections that they might have under employment with a secular institution, religion only hurts itself and betrays it’s claim to moral superiority.

    So the silver lining is that it provides ammunition for atheists to highlight the cruelty and harm of these businesses that garner special privileges by pretending to represent imaginary magical forces.

  3. 3
    Jeff Johnson

    There is a great irony here. The Christian conservatives trying to undermine the Constitution and evade the law are also the greatest perpetrators of the anti-Sharia scare. By carving out religious exceptions to Constitutional and labor law protections, these same people are opening the door to all kinds of abuse of women’s rights from Muslims. That is a point where all religious fundamentalists seem to agree, that it’s okay to discriminate against women.

    If the Christians want Sharia law, they should keep insisting that religion is immune from federal law. The imams are smiling and licking their chops at this moment.

  4. 4
    Crissa

    Since she’s being replaced by a lay teacher, you’d think that’d break their case that they’re firing her for religious reasons. And at no point does the decision face the fact that she didn’t choose the called position – it was required.

    So there’s no reason a religious group can’t decide to arbitrarily choose to call some duties or other religious in nature, especially when firing someone. It’s as weak an argument as when you find suddenly all the performance reviews were negative, suddenly changed right before the employee was fired.

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