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Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Ministerial Exception"

At SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston writes:
Closing the courthouse door much of the way, but not completely, to workplace bias lawsuits by church employees who act as ministers to their denominations, the Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously gave its blessing — for the first time — to a “ministerial exception” to federal, state, and local laws against virtually all forms of discrimination on the job. The Court’s ruling, which only Justice Clarence Thomas said did not go far enough, did not order courts to throw out all such lawsuits as beyond their jurisdiction, but it left them with only a narrow inquiry before the likely order of dismissal would come down. As soon as the denomination makes its point that it counts an employee as a “minister,” within its internal definition, that is probably the end of the case. And the employee could be anyone from the congregational leader, on down to any worker considered to be advancing the religious mission.
The decision, with the main opinion written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., was clearly one of the most important church-state rulings that the Court had issued since its 1990 ruling, in a case involving a Native American church ritual of smoking peyote. In that case, the Court allowed the government to apply “neutral and general” laws to some religious practices, but the Chief Justice on Wednesday said that did not control the new ruling — in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (docket 10-553)....
The Supreme Court has long recognized a First Amendment right for religious organizations to control their own internal affairs, including the selection of their religious leaders — a history in which the Court has had a role since 1872 and in which the Founding generation was involved at least as early as 1806. The Court, as it acknowledged Wednesday, however, has never recognized an explicit “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws at any level. It did so, with considerable enthusiasm, in the Hosanna-Tabor case.