Faced with a case that pitted religious freedom against the enforcement of anti-discrimination law, the Supreme Court this week made the right decision in holding that the government may not tell churches whom to hire — or fire — as ministers. Speaking for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. deftly upheld the principle of ecclesiastical autonomy rooted in the 1st Amendment without allowing it to serve as a pretext for stripping all employees of religious organizations of job protections.
The decision was a defeat for Cheryl Perich, a teacher at a Lutheran school in Michigan who threatened to sue under the disability act because she had not been invited to return to teaching after being diagnosed with narcolepsy. The Obama administration argued that Perich wasn't subject to a so-called ministerial exception from civil rights laws because she taught mostly secular subjects. But Roberts pointed out that she was, in Lutheran parlance, a "called teacher" and "commissioned minister" who had to undergo special theological training and be accepted by the congregation.
That might seem like a narrow holding. In fact, the decision is significant — and will be controversial — for two reasons. First, the ministerial exception it recognizes is a strong one. Not only may churches choose to hire, fire and refuse to hire individuals who "personify" their faith, but the government is forbidden to inquire into whether such decisions conceal ulterior motives.
Furthermore, the decision is adamant that the bar on governmental interference in the hiring and firing of ministers is grounded not only in the 1st Amendment right of "freedom of association" protecting any ideological group's right to limit its membership to believers. Rather, it reflects what Roberts called the 1st Amendment's "special solicitude to the rights of religious organizations." In weighing freedom of religion against other values, he wrote, "The 1st Amendment has struck the balance for us."
Despite this resounding endorsement of religious autonomy, the decision does not approve in advance any assertion of the ministerial exception — such as the notion that a church's lay teachers, secretaries or custodians are included simply because they work for a religious organization. The court, Roberts said, was not adopting a "rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister." So the court will have to speak again on this question, but it has laid down an important principle.