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Firing of Church Workers for Religion Issues Upheld

Times Staff Writer

In a ruling that could affect thousands of employees of church-run hospitals, schools and nursing homes, the Supreme Court said Wednesday that a nonprofit business affiliated with a church may hire and fire workers for religious reasons.

In this clash between the religious rights of employees and the religious requirements of a church, the justices sided unanimously with the churches, concluding that they had the power to decide who would work in their enterprises.

The ruling upheld a 1972 exemption to the federal civil rights laws in which Congress said that “a religious corporation, association, education institution or society” may not be charged with discrimination based on religion.

Although the court ruling is a victory for organized religion, civil rights lawyers said its impact is expected to be limited simply because few churches set strict religious standards for employees in non-religious jobs.

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the focus of Wednesday’s case, does require religious participation by many of its enterprises’ workers, but most other churches have such requirements only for hospital or school workers in theological or religious counseling positions.

The ruling stemmed from a suit filed by a Salt Lake City janitor who was fired from his job at a public gymnasium run by the Mormon church. The janitor, Arthur Mayson, had worked at the Deseret Gymnasium for 16 years when he was dismissed in 1981 for failing to attend Sunday services regularly and pay a tithe to the church.

A federal district judge in Utah ruled last year that the 1972 law was unconstitutional because it allowed churches to apply the “coercive power” of religion to employees in secular jobs.

For the justices, the key question was whether the discrimination exemption aids religion in violation of the First Amendment’s ban on laws “respecting an establishment of religion.”

Justice Byron R. White disagreed with the district judge’s conclusion that the law puts the government in the position of advancing religion by letting churches “extend their influence” into unrelated businesses.

“A law is not unconstitutional simply because it allows churches to advance religion, which is their very purpose,” White said.

His opinion in the case (Corporation of Presiding Bishops vs. Amos, 86-179) contains two important caveats. The decision was limited to nonprofit businesses. Several justices said that they would rule differently if the business was a profit-making enterprise.

The court made clear also that it was merely upholding a choice made by Congress. “That’s significant because it is left open for Congress to change the law if there was widespread evidence of discrimination,” said Joan E. Bertin, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the losing party in the case.

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Major religious groups were split on the case, with some defending it in briefs filed with the court and others criticizing it.

Meanwhile, in a case that tested the outer limits of a public employee’s right to free speech, the justices ruled that a Houston police secretary, Ardith McPherson, could not be fired for having said on the day President Reagan was shot in 1981: “If they go for him again, I hope they get him.”

Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing for a 5-4 majority, said the employee’s free speech right must be balanced against the police department’s need for efficient operations.

“Where an employee serves no confidential, policy-making or public contact role, the danger to the agency’s successful function from that employee’s private speech is minimal,” Marshall said.

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In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said it “boggles the mind” to think that a police employee has a “right” to endorse the assassination of the President. His dissent in the case (Ranks vs. McPherson, 85-2068) was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices White and Sandra Day O’Connor.


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