Overwrought Overstatement (the recent Supreme Court ministerial exception case)

This 2012 presidential race highlights typical overwrought overstatements about constitutional law and United States Supreme Court opinions; in particular, an example is the recent Supreme Court opinion in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C. dealing with a longstanding doctrine called the ministerial exception.  Here is my earlier October 21, 2011 blog post about this case.

Keep in mind this Hosanna-Tabor case stems from the Lutheran school having terminated one of its teachers after she was diagnosed with narcolepsy.   The issue was whether the fired employee could sue her employer (the Lutheran school) under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  In other words, under the ministerial exception the Lutheran school asserted (now, successfully) it is not subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This was not a case where there was an issue about the fired employee’s religious beliefs being in conflict with the Lutheran church or the teacher having personal or lifestyle issues contrary to Lutheran doctrine.

As background, the  ministerial exception is a judicial doctrine that has existed since around 1985.  This doctrine gives religious institutions the freedom to choose their  spiritual leaders not subject otherwise to employment discrimination laws (for example, a Catholic parish that does not hire women as priests or when Baptist churches do not hire gays as preachers, etc.).

Two points, in my view, about this case:

One, contrary to the overwrought overstatement by recent commentators (including, particularly, some talk-show radio hosts), the government (the current administration) in this Hosanna-Tabor case was not trying to gut and end in its entirety the ministerial exception with the result that religious institutions would no longer be able to choose their leaders, clergy, etc.   Here is a copy of the government’s Brief.

Two, in my view the Supreme Court failed to narrow adequately this ministerial exception so that it applies only in employment situations centering more closely on a religious institution’s particular religious doctrine.  By contrast, firing an employee on the basis of a health problem otherwise subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act is an over-application of this exception.

Below, by the way, is the specific holding by the Supreme Court in its recent Hosanna-Tabor opinion:

Today the Court holds only that the ministerial exception bars an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church’s decision to fire her. The Court expresses no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits.

Here is a copy of the U.S. Supreme Court opinion.

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