February 8, 2012

04CN: U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Is 1st Amendment Defense

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Is First Amendment
Defense, Adventist Legal Counselors Say

Ruling further shields churches from government interference. (Posted Feb. 9, 2012)


Seventh-day Adventist Church legal counselors say a recent ruling by the United States Supreme Court further shields churches from government interference.

In a landmark decision, the nation’s highest court ruled that government cannot question a religious community’s decisions regarding who should teach in its church-run schools.

The unanimous January 11, 2012, ruling clarifies the role of the “ministerial exception,” which has previously protected churches in the U.S. from undue government and court interference, said Todd McFarland, an associate general counsel for the Adventist world church’s Office of General Counsel.

While lower courts have applied the ministerial exception for decades, this latest ruling marks the first time the Supreme Court has tackled it.

“For the Adventist Church in the U.S., this means courts will not be second-guessing the hiring and firing of our pastors and teachers,” McFarland said, adding that the decision frees the church to make employment decisions without worrying that a “secular judge and jury” might question their motivation.

“We’re pleased with the outcome,” he said.

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 HIGH COURT RULING: Seventh-day Adventist Church associate general counsel Todd McFarland said church legal counselors are “pleased” with the January 11, 2012, U.S. Supreme Court ruling that government cannot question a church’s decisions on who will teach at its faith-based schools. Here, McFarland reviews church policy at the 2010 General Conference world session. PHOTO: Gerry Chudleigh

The January 11 ruling dismisses the retaliation suit of a Lutheran schoolteacher in Michigan. Commissioned minister and teacher Cheryl Perich was fired after a 2004 narcolepsy diagnosis allegedly left her unable to perform her job. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church argued that Perich’s illness and ensuing absences strained the school’s limited staff and budget.

Perich, however, claimed the church was violating the Americans With Disabilities Act, and threatened to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After the Lutheran Church accused Perich of violating the church’s doctrine of internal conflict resolution, the EEOC sued Hosanna-Tabor for penalizing Perich’s exercise of her rights under the law.

The U.S. sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was convinced, too, after adding up the minutes per day Perich spent on secular and religious duties. They determined Perich spent 45 minutes per day conducting religious activities, such as leading prayer and worship—not enough to apply the “ministerial exception” to discrimination laws, they ruled.

Applying the exception means courts can’t meddle in a church’s decision to appoint, elect, or fire “ministers of the faith,” and, in turn, those ministers can’t sue their churches over most employment disputes.

The nation’s highest court saw the case differently. Supreme Court justices cited Perich’s ministerial credentials and housing allowance from the church as evidence that she acted as a minister of faith. Justices also noted that limiting the ministerial exception to employees “who perform exclusively religious functions” may be impossible, since even ministers handle financial matters, facilities management, and other secular duties.

“The exception should apply to any ‘employee’ who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith,” Justice Samuel Alito, Jr., wrote in a concurring opinion with Justice Elena Kagan.

The Adventist Church was among many religious organizations that filed an amicus, or “friend of the court,” brief in support of the Lutheran-run church school. The church’s support of Hosanna-Tabor cited the value of religious education in membership retention and outlined the history of the ministerial exception, including its foundation in church-state separation.

The Adventist Church’s Office of General Counsel routinely files amicus briefs in cases in which it has invested interest, McFarland said. Previous briefs have supported workplace freedom for Sabbath observers.

In response to their show of support this week for the Supreme Court’s decision, Adventist legal counselors have fielded questions regarding whether the ruling now gives churches the license to “abuse or mistreat” employees, McFarland said.

“The simple answer is obviously no,” he said, “but it’s true that there are certain church employees—not all, and certainly not even a majority—who now have potentially less protection in the courts.”

But Adventist legal counsels don’t want “a jury of 12 people off the street” deciding what church doctrine is and whether a church employee has complied with it, McFarland said.

In a hypothetical case, a pastor close to retirement and fired for “straying from the faith” could argue age discrimination in court and likely find a sympathetic jury, he said.

“The argument that somehow the court can sort out whether a decision is religiously motivated or not is precisely the type of entanglement that requires a separation of church and state,” McFarland said. n