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Supreme Court of the United States

Supreme Court Affirms - A Church Should Determine Who Its Ministers Are, Not The Gov't

By Kevin Theriot posted on:
October 17, 2017

The Supreme Court just handed down a fantastic ruling affirming the right of churches to employ only those individuals that share their beliefs and live their lives according to the teaching of the church. As you may have read in previous posts here and here, a church school in Redford, Michigan, was dealt a blow to its independence from government control by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in 2010.  Hosanna-Tabor is affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and operated a church and school.  All the school teachers lead weekly chapel services, taught a 30-minute religion class four days per week, lead prayer three times per day, and taught a morning devotional.  In fact, many of the teachers were commissioned as ministers.  So when a teacher threatened to sue the church in violation of church doctrine, the church naturally believed that it had the freedom to dismiss her from employment. Lower courts have long recognized the “ministerial exception,” which prohibits government from getting involved in the relationship between a religious organization and its ministers - though the Supreme Court has never officially acknowledged this exception till now.

The Sixth Circuit didn't apply the exception because it found the teacher in question was not really a minister.  The court said she wasn’t a minister because she spent six hours a day teaching secular subjects like math, social studies, and music.  Only an hour or so was spent on exclusively religious instruction.  So the school was prohibited from firing the teacher, even though she violated church teachings regarding mediation of disputes among believers.

Thankfully the Supreme Court rejected this wrongheaded idea that someone tasked with teaching the religious principles of the church doesn't really represent the church's views unless they are specifically teaching a religion class. The Court said that the question of whether a church employee that undertakes both religious and sometimes secular duties is in fact a minister "is not one that can be resolved with a stopwatch." In other words, courts have no business telling a church who it can employ as a minister by getting into the minutia of that employee's daily tasks.

The Court held that both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment "bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers." And "[r]equiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs."

The Supreme Court was right to conclude that the government cannot contradict a church's determination of who can act as its ministers.  This clearly reflects the heart of the original intent of the religion clauses of the First Amendment.  ADF has been pleased to represent the church and school in the trial court since the Sixth Circuit handed down its opinion, and we commend The Becket Fund for its excellent work representing them before the Supreme Court.


Kevin Theriot

Kevin Theriot

Senior Counsel, Vice President of Center for Life

Kevin Theriot serves as senior counsel and vice president of the Center for Life with Alliance Defending Freedom


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