In what some legal analysts consider the most significant decision covering religious freedom in the last 20 years, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled January 11 that a religious organization has the right to fire an employee under the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s “ministerial exception” clause.
The case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, centered on the right of a Michigan elementary school, operated by a Missouri Synod Lutheran church, to dismiss an instructor who wanted to return to work after a disability leave for narcolepsy. The teacher filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), charging that in firing her, the church had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In the first-ever instance of the High Court applying the ministerial exception rule to federal anti-discrimination statutes, the justices ruled that religious workers may not sue on the basis on job discrimination, determining that religious institutions rather than the courts are the best judge of whom they should employ. “We agree that there is such a ministerial exception,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the unanimous opinion. “Requiring 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.”
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