Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC
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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.Chief Justice Roberts, Supreme Court Opinion/
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously for Becket in what the Wall Street Journal called one of the “most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”
Hosanna-Tabor operates a K-8 school founded on biblical principles. Cheryl Perich was a commissioned minister in the Church who taught fourth grade, taught religion, and led worship services. She was dismissed for insubordination and disruptive conduct and threatening to sue the Church, all in violation of church teachings. The Church and its denomination have long taught that disputes over fitness for ministry must be resolved within its denomination.
Perich claims the school retaliated against her for threatening to file a discrimination claim. The Church argues that forcing it to retain Perich against its will, or forcing it to pay large sums of money to get rid of her, would be an unconstitutional restriction on its right to choose its religious leaders.
The lower courts are unanimously agreed that ministers cannot sue their churches in disputes over qualifications, job performance, or rules for ministry—a rule known as the “ministerial exception.” The federal trial court applied the ministerial exception and ruled for the Church. But the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held for Perich, ruling that she was just a fourth-grade teacher and not really a minister. The school then retained Becket to seek certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case because there was a difference of opinion among the federal courts of appeals about which church employees count as ministers.
Perich and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have now escalated the dispute, arguing that there should be no ministerial exception and that any minister — even a priest, a rabbi, or a pastor of a congregation — should be able to sue the church that employs him. This would be a revolution in church-state relations.
On January 11, 2012, the government lost 9-nothing as the Court unanimously rejected its narrow view of religious liberty as “extreme,” “untenable” and “remarkable.”
The unanimous decision adopted Becket’s arguments, saying that religious groups should be free from government interference when they choose their leaders.
The Court rejected the government’s extremely narrow understanding of the constitutional protection for religious liberty, stating: “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.”