WASHINGTON (BP)–The rights of churches and other religious organizations to determine their leaders and teachers is protected from government interference by the U.S. Constitution, two Southern Baptist entities said in a brief for a case argued Oct. 5 before the Supreme Court.
The International Mission Board (IMB) and Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief to support the argument of a Lutheran church in a case considered by observers as one of the most significant religious freedom cases to reach the high court in decades.
The case involves a dispute between a former teacher and a Michigan church that called her to serve in its Christian school, but the far-reaching constitutional principle regards who will make the final determination in certain employment decisions by a religious group — the faith organization or the government.
The former teacher, Cheryl Perich, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against a Michigan congregation that rescinded its call of her as a “commissioned minister” to teach at the church’s school. Though a federal judge ruled in the church’s favor after the EEOC filed suit, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the opinion. The appeals court found Perich’s job was unimportant to “the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church.”
The case’s arrival at the Supreme Court elicited widespread unity from diverse groups defending religious liberty against government infringement. The debate focuses on what is known as the “ministerial exception,” a long-standing principle devised by federal courts that bars the government from using job discrimination laws against the First Amendment rights of churches in their hiring and firing of ministers.
In a startling move, the Department of Justice went so far as to urge the high court to reject totally the “ministerial exception.”
In their brief, the IMB and ERLC — as well as three other religious groups that signed on — contended a “robust ‘ministerial exception’ is critical to religious liberty.” The “ministerial exception” is rooted in two aspects of the First Amendment, according to the brief: (1) The freedom to associate based on the right to assemble, and (2) the right to free exercise of religion.
“Religious groups have the right to choose, free from governmental interference, who will lead them and who will pass their faith onto the next generation,” according to the brief. “Congress has no authority to interfere. This is the essence of the ministerial exception.”
The Constitution’s framers approved the First Amendment’s assembly clause to protect the right of Americans to associate in groups, including religious ones, said the brief endorsed by IMB and the ERLC. The Supreme Court also has protected “freedom of association” in many cases, according to the brief.
The brief also argued that conflicts over church leaders provided inspiration for the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment. The high court has long upheld such protection for religious groups in deciding on leadership, the brief said.
For churches and other religious organizations, “the right to control who teaches their faith, and who transmits it to the next generation, remains indispensable to the free exercise of religion,” the brief said.
The other groups signing onto the brief endorsed by IMB and the ERLC were the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, the Council of Hindu Temples of North America and the Mandaean Association of Massachusetts.
The case is Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.
The church, which is located in Redford, Mich., is affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.