Landmark Ruling on Religious Liberty image

Landmark Ruling on Religious Liberty

When conflicting Human Rights collide, which should take precedence? This is one of the most fraught and pressing questions in the West today, and employment law is one of the key touchpapers. A unanimous ruling by the US Supreme Court yesterday is being heralded as a major step forward in clarifying some of the most pressing questions.

Ted Olsen explains:

Cheryl Perich, a teacher at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Michigan, fell ill in 2004 with a form of narcolepsy and was placed on leave. When she attempted to return, the church voted to offer a “peaceful release” from her call. Perich said she would not resign, and threatened to sue when the school told her she would probably be fired. The church said her threat to sue constituted “insubordination and disruptive behavior” and fired her.
If Hosanna-Tabor had been a secular business, it would have run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Not only does the law say employers can’t make employment decisions on the basis of a disability like narcolepsy, it also says employers can’t retaliate against employees who threaten to sue over such actions.
Perich’s lawyers argued that though she was a “called” teacher (as opposed to a “lay” teacher) and a commissioned minister in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, she wasn’t enough of a “minster” to fall under the ministerial exception. The EEOC agreed, and brought its own suit against Hosanna-Tabor. Notably, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, too.

The case didn’t stop there, however, but was escalated to the Supreme Court, which felt differently. Adam Liptak of the New York Times reports:

“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in a decision that was surprising in both its sweep and its unanimity. “But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.”
Ms. Perich had taught mostly secular subjects but also taught religion classes and attended chapel with her class.
“It is true that her religious duties consumed only 45 minutes of each workday,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “and that the rest of her day was devoted to teaching secular subjects.”
“The issue before us, however, is not one that can be resolved with a stopwatch,” he wrote.
Instead, the court looked to several factors. Ms. Perich was a “called” teacher who had completed religious training and whom the school considered a minister. She was fired, the school said, for violating religious doctrine by pursuing litigation rather than trying to resolve her dispute within the church.

News reports cannot give us the full detail of arguments and circumstances, (though the full ruling can be read here) and there will doubtless be much discussion around whether Ms Perich was acting as a minister when so little of her time was devoted to religious duties. It also seems likely that further clarification will be sought on who can be employed as a minister and thus effectively bypass discrimination laws.
For now though, Ted Olsen says, many are encouraged by the precedent set by the ruling:

Kim Colby, senior counsel for the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom, [said], “This decision should help religious groups that are being charged with ‘religious discrimination’ when they require their leaders to agree with their statement of faith,” she said. “In a conflict between nondiscrimination laws and religious liberty, religious liberty prevailed. Nondiscrimination laws serve vital and good purposes in our society. But they have been increasingly misused to harm religious liberty in a number of contexts over the past decade.”

Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition is calling this the most important Supreme Court Ruling on religion in 20 years and though it does have some features which are unique to the USA (the Chief Justice referred specifically to provisions in the First Amendment to the US Constitution), its implications are sure to be discussed and tested on this side of the Atlantic, too. Will European Courts be so favourable towards the exercise of religion? Watch this space.

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