WASHINGTON, D.C., January 12, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – In a breakthrough decision for religious freedom, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled Wednesday that religious institutions have a constitutional right to determine their ministers without government interference.

Although the High Court has long recognized churches’ First Amendment right to choose priests and senior pastors, yesterday’s 9-0 decision marked the first time it upheld the “ministerial exception” for religious schools and other parachurch ministries.

“[T]here is a ministerial exception grounded in the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the 36-page ruling. “Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision.

“Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs…According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.”

Bishop William E. Lori, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ad hoc committee for religious liberty, hailed the ruling as “a great day for the First Amendment.” He said, “This decision makes resoundingly clear the historical and constitutional importance of keeping internal church affairs off limits to the government – because whoever chooses the minister chooses the message.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) asked the court to overturn the ministerial exception, which was first adopted by lower courts in 1972, a legal precedent that precedes Roe v. Wade. Mark Rienzi, an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told the radio program Kresta in the Afternoon on Thursday the EEOC’s position “said in essence religion gets no special treatment here.”

The Court’s decision called the EEOC’s view of the ministerial exception “untenable,” “extreme,” and “remarkable,” according to religious organizations no greater rights than those enjoyed by “a labor union, or a social club.”  The 9-0 ruling amounted to a “very emphatic rejection of this administration’s very narrow view of religious liberty,” Rienzi said.

The Obama administration sued a Detroit-area Lutheran school for dismissing Cheryl Perich, a teacher and “commissioned minister,” for breaking a church doctrine requiring disputes to be resolved internally. Perich, who was diagnosed with narcolepsy, claimed the school really fired her because of her medical condition. Rather than attend a church tribunal, she filed a discrimination lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) joined in litigation against Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran School, arguing all church employees other than priests or senior pastors should be able to sue for discrimination.

Douglas Laycock, the University of Virginia Law professor who argued the school’s case, said no court could evaluate whether a minister had been fired under a pretext without first ruling whether his views and conduct were sufficiently orthodox, something forbidden under the First Amendment. The First Amendment forbade state intrusion into church hiring practices, Laycock said, adding that Perich referred to herself as a minister and claimed a ministerial housing allowance on her taxes.

The EEOC argued since lay teachers performed the same duties, and ministry took up only 45 minutes of her workday, Perich was entitled to lost wages, damages, and attorneys’ fees. Justice Roberts ruled, “The issue before us, however, is not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch.” In his concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito stated, “the constitutional protection of religious teachers is not somehow diminished when they take on secular functions in addition to their religious ones.”

Religious liberties advocates argued the case had far-reaching consequences for church ministries of all backgrounds. Government interference in church personnel decisions could lead to a chilling of free speech not favored by the current administration, argued John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, which filed an amicus brief on the school’s behalf. “When a church is forced to make employment decisions based on a lawsuit rather than spiritual needs, the end result is that its core activities and spiritual message are inevitably altered in order to accommodate or protect against government pressures or expectations,” he stated.

Ken Klukowski of the Family Research Council described the lawsuit as a “profoundly troubling claim of power over churches.” 

Proponents of the administration believed the plaintiff’s civil rights outweighed potential First Amendment concerns. Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, stated, “Clergy who are fired for reasons unrelated to matters of theology — no matter how capricious or venal those reasons may be — have just had the courthouse door slammed in their faces.”

The Obama administration’s lawsuit was supported by the ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and People for the American Way, American Humanist Association, and several other organizations.

One Catholic organization, BishopAccountability.org, offered an amicus for the EEOC.

Justice Clarence Thomas offered a concurring opinion broadening the ministerial exception and stating the Church should be free to select its ministers entirely free of government regulation. The state, he wrote, should “defer to a religious organization’s good-faith understanding of who qualifies as a minister.” Justices Alito and Elena Kagan added in their concurrence that the term “ministers” should not be definitive, to assure Christian sects and non-Christian religions that have no notion of ordained ministry enjoy the same protections.

The issue is likely to come before the court again, as this ruling did not offer a blanket definition of who qualifies for the ministerial exception, or what other kinds of lawsuits may be allowed. Roberts ruled, “There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances if and when they arise.” 

The case is Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.