Earlier this month, the Supreme Court issued a decision that has been described as one of the most important rulings on religious liberty in decades.
Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al. is remarkable both in its content and in the fact the ideologically divided court ruled 9-0 despite the contentionness of the issue at stake — the right of a religious school to hire and fire teachers according to its understanding of its religious mission, and without interference from the state in the form of standard employee-protection laws.
Will the decision serve as a corrective to an executive branch that appears to have few scruples in interfering in religious affairs?
It also represents somewhat of a setback for the White House. Not only did the administration support the fired teacher, it went further and argued that the “ministerial exception” to employment laws that lower courts informally have upheld for 40 years should be thrown out entirely.
In his decision, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. called that “an extreme position” that “is hard to square with the text of the First Amendment itself, which gives special solicitude to the rights of religious organizations. We cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.”
He said the argument of the plaintiff and the Obama administration that the church used the ministerial exception as a thin “pretext” for forcing her out “misses the point.” “The purpose of the exception is not to safeguard a church’s decision to fire a minister only when it is made for a religious reason. The exception instead ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful — a matter “strictly ecclesiastical” — is the church’s alone.”
For Catholics, of course, the decision is a welcome one, but it remains to be seen whether it will serve as a corrective to an executive branch today that appears to have far fewer scruples than the Founding Fathers in interfering in religious affairs — and in arenas that are causing mounting alarm for Catholic schools, hospitals, charities and other organizations.
Of largest concern are regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services that would require virtually all private health insurers to cover contraception — including abortafacients — and sterilization. The president of the Catholic Health Association famously calls the regulations’ concession to religious groups “a parish housekeeper exemption — that’s about all it covers.”
But federal agencies have also started penalizing Catholic organizations like Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services for their objection to providing abortion and contraception.
There is also an issue at the state level, where Catholic adoption agencies — most recently in Illinois — are being forced to close their doors because they will not place children with same-sex couples (nor with unmarried couples or singles).
The Catholic Church’s opposition to redefinition of marriage has also come under attack from the Department of Justice, which filed a brief in a case last year calling such a position an act of bigotry against homosexuals — an attitude that sets up, as the bishops have argued, the potential for “church-state conflicts for many years to come.”
The Hosanna-Tabor decision is a great victory for the First Amendment. But the work of defending religious liberty remains as urgent today as it was at our nation’s founding.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.