Thanks to the reader who tipped me off to this story in Catholic Online. It covers the recently decided U.S. Supreme Court Case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which represents a major victory in the area of the Free Exercise of Religion clause.
In this case, a Lutheran school asked a lay teacher to resign, and when she objected, sought to resolve the situation under its usual internal resolution procedures. The employee filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and subsequently filed a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
She argued that because she was a lay employee, and not a minister, that she should not be considered to fall under the so-called “ministerial exception” to certain federal statutes. The Lutheran school replied that the nature of the position of teacher at their religious school made the job a religious one and therefore fell under its right choose its own employees under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
In a surprisingly unanimous vote, the Lutheran school prevailed. The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice Roberts. The New York Times posted this summary of the opinion, which sums it up well, though of course incompletely:
In a major religious liberty decision, the Supreme Court for the first time recognized a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws, saying that churches and other religious groups must be free to choose their leaders without government interference.
The Supreme Court’s own syllabus (note, this is not the law, but merely a summary– I post it here for easier digestion of the technical aspects by lay readers) phrases the issue this way (the highlighted points are my own emphases):
1. The Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar suits brought on behalf of ministers against their churches, claiming termination in violation of employment discrimination laws.
(a) The First Amendment provides, in part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Familiar with life under the established Church of England, the founding generation sought to foreclose the possibility of a national church. By forbidding the “establishment of religion” and guaranteeing the “free exercise thereof,” the Religion Clauses ensured that the new Federal Government-unlike the English Crown-would have no role in filling ecclesiastical offices.
(b) This Court first considered the issue of government interference with a church’s ability to select its own ministers in the context of disputes over church property. This Court’s decisions in that area confirm that it is impermissible for the government to contradict a church’s determination of who can act as its ministers.
[…] 2. [Holding that the lay teacher was a minister in the context of the ministerial exception] (a) The ministerial exception is not limited to the head of a religious congregation…
[and finally] (b) Any suggestion that Hosanna-Tabor’s asserted religious reason for firing Perich was pretextual misses the point of the ministerial exception. The purpose of the exception is not to safeguard a church’s decision to fire a minister only when it is made for a religious reason. The exception instead ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful is the church’s alone.
I think this is relevant to the St. Stan’s case for the following reasons. First, the Catholic Church, by her own rules and procedures and laws, has decided it does not want to retain the services of one Marek Bozek. She has ruled, through her lawful shepherds and under her own canon law, that Marek Bozek has been degraded from the clerical state. This decision is completely free from Court interference, as the Hosanna Tabor case shows.
OK, so what, you may ask? Isn’t this a property dispute and a matter for civil law? Or at most, it is a control of a lay Board at issue, isn’t that what the St. Stan’s lawyers and apologists say? Well, not so fast.
One of the key issues in the St. Stan’s trial– and one of the claims the Archdiocese has made to show a breach of the bylaws and the authority to assume control of the Board– is whether the place continues to be a Roman Catholic Church. It is no longer a parish, as it has been suppressed by the Archbishop. It doesn’t have a Catholic priest as a pastor, as he has been defrocked. These two decisions are within the sole competence of the Roman Catholic Church, as she sees fit to exercise this competence. One of these conclusions is compelled by Hosanna Tabor, and one is a logical result of it. The Court itself noted that the dispute over who has authority to hire and fire ministers is often cloaked in a factual matter of a property dispute.
Also, though this may not be as clear cut under the ministerial exception, it is arguable at least that the decision to excommunicate the Board also is the firing of “ministers”, under the exception. Regardless, the crux of the St. Stan’s case isn’t about property or control of a lay Board, but rather over who can call a Church “Catholic”. If the Board decides, then they will say it is, and they may retain control. But if these many ministerial decisions are the sole province of the Roman Catholic Church, then St. Stan’s isn’t operating as a Catholic Church and the bylaws were breached. Game, set, match for the Archdiocese (and for sanity, too).
I hope that the lawyers for the Archdiocese are aware of this Supreme Court opinion, and will file some supplemental briefing.