THE U.S. SUPREME Court, in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, this January unanimously handed down one of its most important church-state decisions in decades. The First Amendment bars ministers from suing the religious communities they serve regarding the terms and conditions of their employment, it said. The Court affirmed that religious bodies, not the government, must have the power to decide which individuals will minister to the faithful, a doctrine known as the “ministerial exception.” The Court also held that the former teacher in this case, Cheryl Perich, was a minister, and thus her lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act could not proceed.
An important aspect of the ruling is the Court’s recognition that there simply is no good way for the state to police these matters—it inevitably ends up intruding on core religious decisions, such as who should speak for the church. When a minister is fired, the religious employer cites a religious reason for doing so, such as sermons that are inconsistent with biblical teachings. If the minister then sues the church for discrimination, he or she claims that religious reason wasn’t the real reason for the church’s actions. The only way for a court to evaluate these claims is to try to assess, for example, the sermons’ consistency with scripture—not an area where the state can or should meddle.
The Hosanna-Tabor decision deserves a “hosanna” because it affirmed essential elements of religious freedom and church-state separation. At the same time, the decision should prompt prayerful consideration, because we know freedom can be abused. Here are three points for people of faith to consider.