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ERLC urges high court to protect religious freedom

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WASHINGTON (BP) – The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has urged the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold in two cases the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The ERLC and state Baptist entities filed a proposed friend-of-the-court brief with the high court Sept. 3 in defense of the freedom of a church, not the government, to determine who qualifies as a minister based on its doctrine. Joining the ERLC in asking the justices to accept the case out of Virginia were the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Christian Life and Public Affairs Committee of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

The ERLC also joined in a friend-of-the-court brief filed Sept. 10 that asked the high court to invalidate a Maine tuition-assistance program that forbids the participation of schools that provide faith-based instruction.

“Both of these cases are important for the future of religious liberty,” said Chelsea Sobolik, the ERLC’s director of public policy, in written comments. She expressed her gratitude the justices have agreed to hear oral arguments in the Maine case and urged them to do the same with the Virginia case.

“Once again, the court is being asked whether it is appropriate for the government to regulate who serves on the staff of a church or religious institution,” she said. “Matters pertaining to religious organizations are no place for the secular government to exert influence, and the briefs we have submitted make this clear.”

In the Virginia case, the brief by the ERLC and Baptist state conventions asked the Supreme Court to reverse a lower court’s decision in support of the city of Fredericksburg’s decision that a couple hired by New Life in Christ Church to be directors of college outreach cannot be considered ministers. The Baptist organizations also asked the high court for permission to file the proposed brief since the city refused to provide consent.

The city government made the determination based on its review – not that of New Life in Christ – of the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order and focused on the couple’s lack of ordination, according to the brief. As a result, the city rejected the application for a tax exemption for ministerial residences the church sought after it purchased a home for the couple, Josh and Anacari Storms.

The Fredericksburg Circuit Court’s ruling against the church’s decision on ministerial qualifications “sets a dangerous precedent in violation of the First Amendment,” the Baptist organizations told the Supreme Court in the brief. The First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion and prohibits government establishment of religion.

The First Amendment’s religion clauses protect faith organizations from government interference, according to the brief. When the government overrules a church’s decision on who qualifies as a minister, it “uproots the chief cornerstone of religious liberty,” the brief said.

The Virginia court’s ruling endangers the autonomy of religious groups, according to the brief. “If the government can dictate which qualifications make one a minister for the purposes of the exemption, including for example, that one must be ordained, then religious organizations will naturally feel pressure to hire as ministers only those who meet those qualifications – even if the organization believes such qualifications are unnecessary or that one lacking them is better suited for the role,” the brief said.

The case is Trustees of the New Life in Christ Church v. Fredericksburg.

The ERLC joined a brief by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the case out of Maine the Supreme Court has already accepted. In March, the ERLC and 12 other organizations signed onto a brief by the Christian Legal Society urging the justices to review an opinion by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston that they said violates the free-exercise clause. The high court has yet to schedule oral arguments in the case.

The new brief said the state’s exclusion of families “from a public subsidy solely because they would put it to both secular and religious uses offends” the First Amendment’s religion clauses. Those clauses “entirely foreclose government-sponsored discrimination because of religious belief, practice, or affiliation,” according to the brief.

“[S]afety from religious discrimination (or worse, persecution) ought to be the irreducible minimum guaranteed under the First Amendment,” the brief said. “Applying the rule against religious discrimination here is straightforward,” because the state’s denial of a benefit to the parents who challenged the policy is “solely because they would use it to pursue an education at a school that offers religious instruction,” according to the brief.

Also signing onto the brief were the Church of God in Christ Inc. and the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team of the Religious Freedom Institute.

Maine’s school-choice program assists families in the many small towns in the state that do not operate secondary schools and the smaller number that have no elementary schools. Those districts are required to pay tuition up to a legal limit at a public or private school elsewhere of the parents’ choosing.

To qualify for the program, private schools must be “nonsectarian,” a category that does not necessarily prohibit religious schools, according to the petition the parents filed earlier seeking Supreme Court review. The state’s Department of Education reviews the instruction used by a religious school to determine if it promotes the faith with which it is identified and therefore is ineligible, the brief said.

The Southern Baptist, father-and-son law team of Michael and Jonathan Whitehead – who practice in the Kansas City area – are representing the Maine parents, along with lawyers from the First Liberty Institute and the Institute for Justice. Jonathan Whitehead is a trustee of the ERLC.

The case is Carson v. Makin.