Archives For ministerial exception

Just some quick updates on stories previously discussed here on The Wild Hunt.

More Discussion on Exorcism and Demonic Influences: Last week I took issue with Patheos Catholic columnist Fr. Dwight Longenecker, who made the argument that Aurora, Colorado killer James Holmes may have been demonically possessed. Now, Religion News Service has picked up the story, bringing this controversial view to a much wider audience.

“Longenecker dismissed the range of explanations for what might have motivated Holmes — a bad childhood, mental illness, social awkwardness, extreme political or religious views, or exposure to violent video games or to the Batman movie that was showing when he allegedly opened fire. The real culprit, he says, was spiritual, and malign.”

Meanwhile, other Catholics, like  About.com’s Scott P. Richert, are doubling down on the demonic “infestation” scenario, referencing Ouija board use in the 1973 film “The Exorcist” as an accurate portrayal of how possession begins.

Troubling Expansion of the Ministerial Exception? At the beginning of this year I wrote about the Supreme Court of the United State’s decision in in Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commissionwhich centered on the question of whether an employee of a religious organization could be fired without recourse to anti-discrimination laws if they were ordained within said faith. The ruling established that a ministerial exception from federal discrimination laws does exist. Now, Religion Clause reports on two linked ruling from the Kentucky Court of Appeals that says the exception applies even when faculty at a seminary aren’t even of the same religion.

“Because Kant’s primary duties involved teaching religious-themed courses at a seminary, his position was one that prepared students for Christian ministry…. Given his position as a faculty member teaching at a seminary, Kant’s personal views are not determinative of the function he served. Rather, we review the function of his position: teaching future Christian ministers primarily on Judeo-Christian subjects and culture. Kant’s personal faith and beliefs do not clash with the actuality that the classes he taught at LTS were for the purpose of preparing future church leaders of the Christian faith.”

So a Jew can be considered a “minister” of a Christian seminary, so long as his role supports the institution’s goals. One wonders how this interpretation could be abused by organizations who want to evade litigation over a firing. More on this particular story, here.

The Olympics and Religion (and those dualistic Greeks): I recently linked to two articles that looked at the ancient (pagan) history of the Olympic games, now underway in London. Now, USA Today spotlights an editorial by Pastor Henry Brinton that also looks at religion and the games, specifically the Christians history of the modern games, and how “muscular Christianity” saved us from the dualism of the ancient Greeks.

“Ancient Greeks are partially to blame. While they provided the inspiration for the modern Games, they also created a dualistic philosophy that included antagonism between the physical and spiritual. Christians embraced this approach for many years, until muscular Christianity came along and people began to reclaim the ancient biblical truth that human beings are created with a unity of flesh and spirit. […] As for the Olympics, perhaps the opening ceremonies should have had a celebration of religions as well as a parade of nations. Most of the world’s great faiths honor both body and spirit, and encourage health and vitality. This would correct the error made by the ancient Greeks, and would pay tribute to the religious leaders who made the modern Olympics possible. It could even inspire a few religious people to get off the couch and into the gym.”

I wish I could stamp a giant “citation needed” on these claims, because it sounds like revisionist triumphalism to me. Ancient Greeks may have believed in a physical world and a world of spirit, but that didn’t create an antagonism between the two realities. It sounds to me like Christians blaming Greek philosophy for their own shortcomings in how they adopted and adapted pagan thought. I’ll leave it to my philosophy and ancient Greece buffs to let me know if my suspicions are correct, or if Greek dualism really did create this antagonism Brinton claims.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Today the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which centered on the question of whether an employee of a religious organization could be fired without recourse to anti-discrimination laws if they were ordained within said faith. The case heard by the Supreme Court involved a teacher at a Lutheran school who was fired due to a sleep disorder. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, backed by the Justice Department, felt that her role at the school was largely secular in nature, and shouldn’t fall under the exceptions usually given to clergy within religious groups. However, the court, in a rare unanimous ruling, sided with Hosanna-Tabor Church, and for the first time, acknowledged that a ministerial exception from federal discrimination laws does exist.

The Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States

“Closing the courthouse door much of the way, but not completely, to workplace bias lawsuits by church employees who act as ministers to their denominations, the Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously gave its blessing — for the first time — to a “ministerial exception” to federal, state and local laws against virtually all forms of discrimination on the job.  The Court’s ruling, which only Justice Clarence Thomas said did not go far enough, did not order courts to throw out all such lawsuits as beyond their jurisdiction, but it left them with only a narrow inquiry before the likely order of dismissal would come down.  As soon as the denomination makes its point that it counts an employee as a “minister,” within its internal definition, that is probably the end of the case.  And the employee could be anyone from the congregational leader, on down to any worker considered to be advancing the religious mission.”

In short, ministerial exception involves not only ministers, but any employee who is performing religious work within a faith group. This was plainly expressed in the concurring opinion of Justice Alito and Justice Kagan, who noted that many religions do not use the term “minister” and that “courts should focus on the function performed by persons who work for religious bodies.”

“The First Amendment protects the freedom of religious groups to engage in certain key religious activities, including the conducting of worship services and other religiousceremonies and rituals, as well as the critical process of communicating the faith.  Accordingly, religious groupsmust be free to choose the personnel who are essential tothe performance of these functions. The “ministerial” exception should be tailored to this purpose. It should apply to any “employee” who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith. If a religious group believes that the ability of such an employee to perform these key functions has been compromised, then the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom protects the group’s right to remove the employee from his or her position.”

This concurring opinion will no doubt be very welcome to a coalition of minority faiths, 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, who filed an amicus brief in this case  warning that they were particularly susceptible to judicial encroachment, and that their faiths often categorize what might be seen as “secular” work within a sacred context.

“…many seemingly secular activities take on deep religious significance within specific faith traditions. For Sikhs, for example, operating a community kitchen and providing meals (langar) to the needy and vulnerable is an indispensible element of religious worship. For some temple-centric religions, the actual process of constructing a temple carries deep religious significance. Hindu temple architects and artisans follow ancient religious traditions in their work. For others, temple overseers may be tasked specifically to ensure that construction workers follow religion-based standards and refrain from profane acts that might desecrate the temple. For other religious organizations, meditation is a form of worship, distributing aid through prescribed means is an essential sacred ritual, and counseling and healing are acts inspired by deity. But because such religious functions – at least from the external view – may be indistinguishable from the same activities carried out for secular purposes, courts trying to parse the sacred from the profane jeopardize the ability of religious organizations to define and carry out their own sacred missions.”

The court agreed with this view, noting that the “amount of time an employee spends on particular activities is relevant in assessing that employee’s status, but that factor cannot be considered in isolation, without regard to the nature of the religious functions performed.” Justice Roberts went on to say that the lower court’s ruling “placed too much emphasis on Perich’s performance of secular duties.”

I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that this is a landmark ruling, enshrining the concept of ministerial exception in our highest court, and all but eliminating workplace discrimination suits if the plaintiff performs a significant religious role within an organization. That said, the court did stress that this doesn’t protect religious organizations from criminal investigation or other kinds of litigation, and should only be applied to the hiring and firing of “ministers”. How broad or narrow the understanding of “ministerial” duties will be is something that will no doubt be settled in the courts for years to come. For minority faiths, it seems to signal that the ministerial exception isn’t isolated to traditional minister-congregational models, and can be applied to any number of religious situations. What the ramifications might be for adherents to non-Christians models of worship and work remains to be seen.

You can read my original post regarding this story, here. For extensive links to documents and analysis of this case, do check out the information-packed SCOTUSblog.

On Wednesday the Supreme Court of the United States will hear a case that could have serious ramifications on what’s known as “ministerial exception” at institutions run by religious organizations. Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission centers on a teacher at a Lutheran school who was fired due to a sleep disorder. The church is claiming that the teacher’s position falls under ministerial exception, and is therefore exempt from any discrimination proceedings, while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, backed by the Justice Department, feels that her role at the school was largely secular in nature, and shouldn’t fall under the exceptions usually given to clergy within religious groups.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Chief Justice John Roberts

Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Chief Justice John Roberts

“The core question before the Justices, in responding to the broad argument for an exception, is how to define the scope of duties of parochial school teachers like Cheryl Perich.   If the decision is that Ms. Perich was a minister, anti-bias laws cannot shield her in the workplace; if she was not, she is then like any other worker, protected against discrimination on the job.   In her case, the claim is that she was discriminated against because of her physical health problems and her insistence on her legal rights — in short, she was allegedly the victim of retaliation, in violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.”

While all the expected big players in American religion, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches, and the National Association of Evangelicals, are backing the church, and a broad interpretation of ministerial exception, so too are a number of minority religions in the United States.

“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.”

In their amicus brief, this coalition of minority religions say they are particularly susceptible to judicial encroachment, and that their faiths often categorize what might be seen as “secular” work within a sacred context.

“…many seemingly secular activities take on deep religious significance within specific faith traditions. For Sikhs, for example, operating a community kitchen and providing meals (langar) to the needy and vulnerable is an indispensible element of religious worship. For some temple-centric religions, the actual process of constructing a temple carries deep religious significance. Hindu temple architects and artisans follow ancient religious traditions in their work. For others, temple overseers may be tasked specifically to ensure that construction workers follow religion-based standards and refrain from profane acts that might desecrate the temple. For other religious organizations, meditation is a form of worship, distributing aid through prescribed means is an essential sacred ritual, and counseling and healing are acts inspired by deity. But because such religious functions – at least from the external view – may be indistinguishable from the same activities carried out for secular purposes, courts trying to parse the sacred from the profane jeopardize the ability of religious organizations to define and carry out their own sacred missions.”

Interestingly, the Unitarian Universalist Association, filing along with the ACLU and American United, takes a very different view of this case. In their opinion, a generous interpretation of the exception shields groups engaging in abusive or exploitative actions.

“The ministerial exception is designed to allow religious bodies to practice their religion and convey their message without government interference. But the exception thwarts society’s interest in ending discrimination—without serving the exception’s purpose—when applied to shield a religious entity from liability for discrimination or retaliation that is unrelated to religious ideology. As a result, in applying the ministerial exception, courts can and should use their considerable experience in determining whether sincere religious views animated a litigant’s conduct. And the Constitution provides no bar to this enterprise.”

It all comes down to viewpoint. For minority groups like Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye or O Centro Beneficente Uniao Do Vegetal, who have both gone to the Supreme Court to protect their beliefs and practices, the less power the government has to pass judgment on their practices, the better. For the UUA, and the civil liberties groups who often represent minority faiths in court, it’s about accountability and justice.

“The American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of religious-liberty groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, considered by many to be one of the most important religious liberty cases in years.  The brief argues that although churches certainly have a constitutional right to religious autonomy, that right is not absolute, and religious organizations do not have the right to discriminate based on non-religious grounds. Religious institutions should be given some leeway in hiring practices in order to express and practice their faith. For example, a Catholic church need not hire a female priest and an Orthodox Jewish congregation need not hire a female rabbi if doing so would violate their religious tenets. However, this ministerial exception should not apply to discriminatory decisions that have nothing to do with religious doctrine.”

So how will SCOTUS rule? Well, a good preview might be Sylvia Spencer v. World Vision Inc in which the 9th Circuit Court ruled that the religious non-profit organization could hire and fire workers based on religion. That decision was just denied certiorari, meaning they’re allowing the ruling to stand. Is it a harbinger? Will the six Catholic justices find themselves moved by their own church’s position on this case? SCOTUS will have to decide how far the First Amendment reaches, or as law professor Richard W. Garnett put it: “Does a government like ours, limited by a provision like our First Amendment, have the authority to second-guess a religious community’s decision — even a decision that seems wrongheaded or objectionable — about who should be its religious teacher, leader, or minister?” What do you think?