by Quin Hillyer
Here at this site on Sept. 9, I wrote about why religious freedom is at risk in this country – and about how a case the Supreme Court was hearing this term, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, could provide a strong chance to reinforce this all-important liberty. The great news is that the court ruled unanimously last week in favor of freedom. The question is, what comes next?
In September, I explained it thusly: If the court ruled wrongly, it would confirm “the frightening proposition that churches enjoy almost no exemption from employment-law litigation regarding their decisions to hire, retain, or fire ministers and related employees. This ‘ministerial exception’ to employment-discrimination laws… is an essential part of religious liberty. Otherwise, churches could be charged with violating employment law merely for insisting, for instance, that a pastor actually be a member of the denomination of the church in question…. This, of course, would make courts deciders of religious doctrine - a massive encroachment on religious liberty. Hence the courts' traditional refusal to take on such a role.”
In a column last week for the Center for Individual Freedom, I explained the case at much greater length, and I urge anybody with a more detailed interest to read that piece. Amazingly and quite reassuringly, all nine members of the high court agreed that the ministerial exception does exist, and that it is a fairly broad exemption rather than a cramped, narrow one that severely restricts churches rather than broadly protecting their autonomy.
What does this mean in practice? Imagine if, for example, a small church hired a young college graduate for multiple roles – perhaps as an all-around administrative assistant with side duties as an assistant youth minister. Now, it is clear that somebody tasked with helping adolescents “connect” to their church and their faith is doing work that has an important faith component. Yet, had the Supreme Court ruled the other way, it could have accepted the argument that if the young employee worked only about one fifth of his time on the youth-minister part of the job, then he wouldn’t really qualify as a “minister” in any real legal way. If the church then discovered that this person’s lifestyle (carousing, for instance) in some way made him a bad role model and fired him even though he continued to perform well during working hours, he could find some pretense to sue them. A judge would then be put in the position of being able to tell a church what should and should not be “legitimate” religious reasons for the church to fire the young man – even if the church strongly believed that its adolescents would be harmed in their faith life by continued exposure to the young man.
In short, the judge would be interpreting doctrine. If that were the case, then government would be directly interfering with the internal, doctrinal affairs of a church, meaning that no church would be free from abuse from government officials.
That way lies tyranny.
We therefore can celebrate the strong, strong support the Supreme Court gave in this case to the cause of religious freedom. That does not mean, however, that religious freedom is immune from assault on many other fronts. Alas, those assaults continue. As I wrote in the two columns linked above, some of those assaults involve infringements on the “rights of conscience” of various medical workers and counselors. But those aren’t the only problem areas.
Groups such as the Alliance Defense Fund and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty frequently carry the legal fight for people of faith. Some of those battles involve the defense of traditional marriage and, of course, the multitudinous battles over communities’ rights to merely acknowledge faith in the public square with Christmas celebrations or representations of the Ten Commandments.
Other battles aren’t legal, but cultural. Hollywood all too often belittles people of traditional Christian faith. The halls of academia are often hostile. Too many colleges promote a culture of immorality via not just co-ed dorm floors, but co-ed restrooms and overt contempt not just for traditional morality but for basic modesty as well. In response, people of faith therefore must try to advocate our views in the public square just as firmly as lawyers argue our case in court. We must do so with a combination of firmness, respectfulness and an attractive good humor. And we must not yield. Our own ministries might not be in any way official, but there should be no exception for our duty to make our case for those things that are good – and the case for our Lord.