Su v. Stephen Wise Temple
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Stephen S. Wise Temple, one of the largest and most prominent Reform Jewish synagogues in Southern California, is defending its right to decide how to conduct its own ministry. In September 2013, the State of California sued the Temple in state court, arguing that the Temple was not giving certain ministers long enough lunch breaks. In March 2016, the state court rejected California’s lawsuit, which the state appealed the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District. In July 2018, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Temple.
A synagogue’s work at risk
Stephen S. Wise Temple is one of the largest and most prominent Reform Jewish synagogues in Southern California, serving its congregation through worship, community service, and education. But the Temple’s work was put at risk when the State of California claimed it could interfere with the synagogue’s internal decisions about its ministers.
In September 2013, the State of California sued the Temple in state court over whether the Temple gives certain ministers—here, preschool teachers—long enough lunch breaks. Represented by Horvitz Levy, the Temple stood up for its rights, arguing that California has no right to second guess the Temple’s decisions about how its ministers should carry out its religious mission.
The Supreme Court has confirmed autonomy for houses of worship
In March 2016, the trial court agreed with the Temple, basing its decision on the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which Becket won on behalf of a Lutheran elementary school in 2012. In Hosanna-Tabor, the Court unanimously recognized a principle of the First Amendment known as the ministerial exception, which states that the government should not interfere with religious institutions’ decisions about the employment of their ministers – including teachers in religious schools.
The State of California appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the ministerial exception does not apply to the Temple in this case. In July 2018, Becket – joined by the Church Of God In Christ denomination, one of the largest African-American denominations in the United States – filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the California Court of Appeals for the Fourth Appellate District. On March 8, 2019, the Court of Appeals ruled against the Temple, and on June 19, 2019, the California Supreme Court denied further review. The Temple has announced that it plans to appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
Houses of worship have the right to make their own decisions when it comes to choosing how their religious ministers will conduct religious ministry. Thus, the Temple, not the government, gets to determine how ministry should be performed by the ministers who teach Jewish religious values and traditions to young children.
Importance to religious liberty:
- Freedom of religious groups to choose how their ministers will minister: Becket’s 2012 Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor set a precedent on this issue for churches.
- Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Both church and state are better off when the state isn’t evaluating the internal religious affairs of a religious ministry.