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Religious Leaders Line Up In Support Of US Supreme Court Case


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
by Peter Smith

Unity among religious leaders is rare, but a pending U.S. Supreme Court case is drawing together a group beyond the boldest dreams of any interfaith parliament.

Leaders of Roman Catholics, Mormons, Presbyterians, United Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus, United Sikhs, Muslims, Episcopalians, Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews are united.

So are the conservative National Association of Evangelicals and its liberal counterpart, the National Council of Churches.

So are devotees of Santeria, Yoruba and other religions you may not know.

Even the various Baptist denominations are all on the same side.

They all support the right of religious groups to hire and fire teachers who could be construed as “ministers” on grounds that would be otherwise discriminatory, whether due to race, gender and disability or other reasons. The case could affect hundreds of thousands of teachers and other employees in faith-based schools and organizations.

Dozens of organizations, religious and otherwise, are choosing up sides by filing friend-of-the-court briefs in the case.

Only one religious denomination — the Unitarian Universalist Association — supports the right of employees to sue organizations such as itself.

The high court is scheduled to hear arguments next week over a Michigan Lutheran school’s firing of a teacher who alleges discrimination because she has a disability.

The school’s lawyers argue that courts can’t review the claim because she was essentially a minister. (The school has since closed, but its denominational owners are defendants.)

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that she wasn’t a minister because her “primary duties” were to teach secular subjects.

At issue is the doctrine of the “ministerial exception.”

“The basic rationale underlying the doctrine seems straightforward,” wrote Howard Friedman, a professor emeritus of law at the University of Toledo, in the magazine Liberty.

“For a religious institution to thrive, it must be free from government constraint in selecting who will ‘preach its values, teach its message, and interpret its doctrines both to its own membership and to the world at large,’” Friedman wrote, quoting federal case law.

“Laws against religious discrimination in employment should not permit the government to tell a Presbyterian church, for example, that it must hire a rabbi,” he wrote.

But the question has gotten murkier in recent court cases in which religious groups claim that other workers besides the most obvious — clergy — are ministers and don’t have the right to challenge their dismissals.

That includes teachers, in the case of the Lutheran school.

It also includes:

? Administrative assistants, as in a North Carolina case. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has been trying to fend off a race-discrimination claim by a former administrative aide by claiming she was essentially a minister.

? Professors, as in a case involving Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky. The seminary persuaded Fayette Circuit Court judges that two professors it dismissed in a recent restructuring were ministers who had no right to sue over alleged breach of contract. Their case is now before the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

“I am glad that I, apparently, inspired some of my students, but that makes me a good teacher, not a minister,” argued one of the plaintiffs, Laurence Kant, who also said his designation of minister at a Christian seminary is wrong because he’s Jewish. The seminary argued that professors were always required to be “models for ministry.”

In the Supreme Court case, those supporting the former Michigan teacher include the federal government and proponents of strict church-state separation.

They also include various atheist groups and a coalition of advocates for victims of sexual abuse by clergy who don’t want this case to extend legal protections to perpetrators’ employers.

The arguments in the Supreme Court case vary, but following are a few samples.

“Any given religious community is a mere generation away from extinction,” said a brief filed jointly by the National Council of Churches, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

“Teachers in religious schools are commonly on the front line of conveying the faith,” the group wrote, arguing that government and courts need to stay out of their hiring and firing.

But a coalition of religion and law professors, supporting the teacher, opposed a “breathtaking” expansion of the definition of ministers:

“One irony and injustice in the ministerial rule is that women employees of denominations that do not ordain women suddenly become ministers at the moment they file a lawsuit,” the coalition wrote.

It continued: “Although some Roman Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women may not become priests, imams or rabbis,...the courts and churches confer ministerial status upon them just long enough to keep their lawsuits out of court.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America filed a joint argument supporting the Lutheran school.

Even though the former teacher taught secular subjects, they wrote, she also taught religion and led students in prayer three times a day.

“The church must have the right, free from state interference, to select those engaged in church governance, worship, teaching or other related functions, regardless of whether they have other duties as well,” the group wrote.

The former teacher also is getting support from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Some “courts have...converted the ministerial exception into a shield for all forms of discrimination and retaliation, regardless of motivation,” they argued in a brief filed with the Unitarian Universalists, the National Council of Jewish Women and Sikh Council on Religion and Education. “And they have prevented judicial redress of even the most flagrant racial or sexual harassment.”

Defending the school is a coalition of small and sometimes-obscure religious groups.

They include the Muslim-American Public Affairs Council, United Sikhs, Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, O Centro Beneficente Uniao Do Vegetal and Templo Yoruba Omo Orisha.

“Minority religions whose faith traditions are often foreign to judges and jurors and who lack political and financial clout to defend against misconceptions are particularly susceptible to having their religious freedoms infringed,” the group wrote.

In his commentary, Friedman wrote that the Supreme Court could affect many workers.

“The cook in the kosher cafeteria of a Jewish day school, the school nurse in a Catholic middle school, or the recess monitor in a Christian elementary school arguably all have a role in spreading religious values,” Friedman wrote.




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