Bench Memos

Major Victory for Religious Liberty Against Obama Administration Attack

In its unanimous ruling today in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC, the Supreme Court held that the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause bar ministers from invoking the employment-discrimination laws against the religious organizations that employ them.

Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion on behalf of the entire Court affirms that the so-called “ministerial exception” to employment-discrimination laws is firmly rooted in the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses, including the Court’s decisions establishing that “it is impermissible for the government to contradict a church’s determination of who can act as its ministers.” The opinion thus rejects the remarkably hostile contentions of the Obama administration that there is no general ministerial exception and that religious organizations are limited to the right to freedom of association that labor unions and social clubs enjoy. That latter contention, the Chief explains,

is hard to square with the text of the First Amendment itself, which gives special solicitude to the rights of religious organziations. We cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.

The Chief’s opinion does not undertake to “adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister” and instead limits itself to explaining the Court’s conclusion that the employee in the instant case was a minister covered by the ministerial exception.

In one concurring opinion, Justice Thomas expresses his view that courts should “defer to a religious organization’s good-faith understanding of who qualifies as a minister.” In a second concurrence, Justice Alito, joined by Justice Kagan, calls for the inquiry to “focus on the function performed by persons who work for religious bodies,” rather than on whether a religious organization uses the term “minister” or has a concept of ordination.

Congratulations to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty for its important victory.

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