The decision was issued without much fanfare or media hoopla, but the ruling is significant and sweeping in scope. Here are the general details of the case, Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
I think you’d want to know about it.
Cheryl Perich was a teacher at a Lutheran school in Redford, Michigan. Her working relationship with school officials became strained around the same time she was diagnosed with narcolepsy. In response to the personnel tension, she sued the school, citing workplace discrimination. And in response to her decision to sue, the school fired her. By filing a lawsuit, school administration officials said, Ms. Perich violated a core church and biblical principle concerning the appropriate way to address a grievance with an employer.
As many of you are aware, the Bible offers clear and candid guidance on the ideal way to try and resolve conflict among believers:
Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector (Matthew 18:15-17).
Ms. Perich and her attorneys disagreed with the school’s contention that they were exempt from certain employment rules based on their religious nature. School officials were not playing by the rules of general employment, they argued, and suggested they were legally prohibited from hiring and firing on the basis of theological doctrine.
But the Supreme Court unanimously disagreed.
“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in a decision. “But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.”
Regarding the application of the First Amendment he continued:
“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.” Requiring Ms. Perich to be reinstated would have plainly violated the church’s freedom and [paying restitution] “would operate as a penalty on the church for terminating an unwanted minister.”
Justice Alito, in a concurring opinion, went even further in his advocacy for allowing faith-based organizations to establish their own personnel qualifications and criteria. He wrote that the religious exception in question, which allows religious organizations to set their own employment standards, “should apply to any ‘employee’ who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.”
This decision is very welcome news. It affirms and celebrates the church’s independence from government and bureaucratic intrusion. But make no mistake: Wednesday’s ruling is not just a victory for the Hosanna-Tabor Church. It’s also a triumph for all people of faith and especially people of faith who also hold in high respect the First Amendment.