I will defer to “a religious organization’s good-faith understanding of who qualifies as its minister.”  Justice Clarence Thomas


The Supreme Court recently ruled in Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that Federal labor laws do not apply to religious organizations in regards to people who can be considered ministers.  The defendant, Ms. Perich claims she was fired by the Lutheran Church School she worked for because she developed narcolepsy.  The interesting and perhaps concerning part of this 9-0 ruling is that the school can define her as a minister because for 45 minutes a day she was responsible for attending chapel with her class.  What bothers me is that it seems to me that anyone who works for a religious organization could be defined by the church itself as a “minister” if the church wanted to fire that person.  (By the way the official reason for Ms. Perich’s firing is that apparently it is a violation of church doctrine trying to take the church to court instead of trying to work out the problem with the church itself).

 What could be the long term ramifications of this ruling?  It seems to me that this ruling determined that ADA does not actually apply to churches, so long as they choose to call them a minister, even if it is after the fact.  Blatant discrimination against the disabled is okay now, so long as you are a church.  I am not arguing here that churches should have to move into the 21st Century and accept groups that they would otherwise vocally come out against; however, I think you would be hard-pressed to find a church who turns people away because they are sick.  As Rev. Barry Lynne, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said “Blatant discrimination is a social evil we have worked hard to eradicate in the United States…” said Lynn.  “Clergy who are fired for reasons unrelated to matters of theology—no matter how capricious or venal those reasons may be—have just had the courthouse door slammed in their faces.” 

Ultimately, I am lucky to live in a country where the government cannot appoint my religious officials, but I think in this particular case, the church has been put above the law of the land.  It doesn’t matter if you are actually a minister, if you work for a church, you are at risk.  What does this mean for victims of sexual abuse by priests?  Will it make it harder to prosecute priests simply because the church is above being held accountable?  Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, “The upshot is that religious organizations can fire clergy based on disability, race, or gender, and clergy will not be able to sue them for invidious discrimination.  No one becomes clergy in the United States expecting to face such discrimination, but now at least those who are being ordained can know from the start that if they are ever subject to invidious discrimination by their religious institution, they will have no legal recourse… But the Court did not hold—or even approach the notion—that religious organizations operate autonomously with respect to any body of law other than the federal anti-discrimination laws.” Only time will tell what this judgment really means for the average church employee, but overall I am troubled by the potential implications of this case.