The U.S. Supreme Court spoke clearly and firmly on the issue of religious freedom recently, boldly affirming the constitutional principle that prevents government meddling in the affairs of religious groups.
The decision, arguably the most important on religious freedom in a generation, is a crucial victory for religious liberty and a strong affirmation of the religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment.
In a unanimous ruling, the court backed the rights of religious groups to hire and fire religious employees without government interference. Specifically, it held for the first time that religious employees working for religious groups cannot sue for employment discrimination. This “ministerial exception” has been recognized by lower courts for years, and the unanimous decision reflects a broad consensus on this topic.
The case involved a Michigan teacher, Cheryl Perich, with narcolepsy who was fired from a Lutheran Church school. She claimed the church fired her for pursuing an employment discrimination case.
Were she a secular employee, Perich could have possibly made a case, but she taught religious subjects in a religious institution. The court found, correctly in our view, that the government can’t second-guess hiring decisions by religious groups. The court intentionally left vague the definition of an employee doing religious work, but the concept is that secular employees working for religious groups can avail themselves of government protection from discrimination.
Perich’s lawyers and the Obama administration argued the ruling could potentially erode protections for religious employees who, for example, report sexual abuse. Roberts responded by saying those questions could be addressed if they arise. It’s an area where vigilance is needed, to be sure, but those risks do not outweigh the risk of undermining bedrock American principles of religious liberty.
Chicago Sun-Times (Jan. 19)