Does the First Amendment right to religious freedom include the right of religious organizations to fire people for refusing the sexual advances of their employers, and for reporting those advances to the authorities?
You would think that the obvious answer to this would be No. You would think this would be the textbook definition of a no-brainer. You would think that nobody on this earth would even have to think about the answer to this question.
But apparently, the answer to this question is less obvious than you’d think.
Friendly Atheist has the story of Mary Linklater, former choir director at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, who was sexually harassed by her pastor and another prominent church member; complained; was cruelly retaliated against and eventually fired; sued; and won. The church is now appealing the judgment…
…on the basis of the “Ministerial Exception” — the legal principle that, because of the First Amendment right to freedom of religion, religious employers have more leeway in hiring and firing than secular employers do, and can hire and fire based on religious criteria.
I’ll say that again.
The Prince of Peace Lutheran Church is claiming, in court, that resisting the unwanted sexual overtures of your pastor and boss is a “religious criteria.” They are arguing that screwing the pastor when he asks you to is part of the religious doctrine they adhere to, and that they have the right to fire someone who doesn’t adhere to it.
That’s sure what it looks like to me, anyway.
What gets to me isn’t just the grotesque immorality of this position. I mean, of course, yes, that does get to me. But by now the idea that some religious leaders are repulsively unethical hypocrites, claiming a superior morality from their supposed special relationship with God while behaving in ways that a psychopathic chimp would find ethically revolting… this is so common that it barely registers on my radar anymore.
What gets to me is that this is their public, legal defense. This isn’t just how they rationalize their behavior to themselves, in the privacy of their brains, in the dark night of their purported souls. This is what they’re saying in public, the position they’re officially and openly painting themselves with. They apparently have no idea what a massive P.R. disaster this defense could be. Their rationalization is so deeply rooted, they seem to have no idea what it might look like to other people — parishioners, other church employees, the public at large — to insist that the right to sexually harass their staff and retaliate when they complain is a religious freedom, a doctrine of their faith that they have the right to expect their employees to comply with, guaranteed them by the First Amendment.
It reminds me all too well of the Catholic Church, arguing in court that they have a First Amendment/ freedom of religion right to discipline their priests as they see fit, and to assign and re-assign priests as they see fit… including shuffling child-molesting priests around the country to shield them from arrest and prosecution.
I mean, think about it. Is that really the position you want to be arguing? That shielding religious leaders who commit crimes — especially sexual abuse crimes — is part of your religious expression, a tenet of your faith that you have every right to practice? Even if by some freakish twist you win the court case… is that really what you want to be telling the world about your faith?
Or perhaps, would you rather tell the world, “We are so sorry this happened, this is not who we are or what we stand for, we ask your forgiveness and will do whatever we can to make up for it?”
I’m just sayin, is all.