The U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Hosanna-Tabor v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is an important victory for religious liberty says First Amendment expert John Inazu, JD, associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.
The case pitted the freedom of a church to select its own leaders against a terminated employee’s ability to bring a disability discrimination claim.
“Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion for the Court made clear that both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses ‘bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers,’” Inazu says.
“A church cannot be made ‘to accept or retain an unwanted minister’ because doing so ‘interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.’”
Inazu says the case is significant for at least three reasons.
“First, it entrenches the ministerial exception — which the lower courts have recognized for four decades,” he says.
“Second, it applies the exception to an employee who worked beyond the four corners a church, in this case, to a school operated by the church. Third, it applies the exception based on an overall assessment of the employee’s role, based in part on the church’s understanding of that role.”
“This third point is worth underscoring: it signifies a kind of institutional deference that cannot be reduced to rote formula. Each of these three assertions provides vital protections for religious groups whose freedoms have been threatened by the Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith and its 2010 decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez.”
Employment Division v. Smith limited the protections of the free exercise clause against generally applicable laws like employment discrimination laws. Christian Legal Society v. Martinez folded the claims to freedom of religious association into a less protective speech framework.
“In light of Smith and Martinez, Hosanna-Tabor is a welcome reminder that the Court has not lost sight of ‘the text of the First Amendment itself, which gives special solicitude to the rights of religious organizations.’”