Three new cases present the Supreme Court with an opportunity to clarify the scope of autonomy for religious institutions
Last week, a church, a Christian college, and a faith-based rescue mission all asked the Supreme Court to review lower court rulings that rejected their ability to determine, free of governmental second-guessing, which employees they will treat as ministers.
In Gordon College v. DeWeese-Boyd, the evangelical school is asking the court to review a Massachusetts appeals court ruling in favor of Margaret DeWeese-Boyd’s claim that the school denied her promotion to a full professorship of social work because she opposes the school's policies on LGBTQ individuals. Gordon denies the contention, citing other factors, yet argues the “ministerial exception” to nondiscrimination law precludes a court’s consideration of her claim.
“If Gordon cannot select, retain, and promote its faculty free of government interference, it cannot faithfully carry out its religious mission,” Gordon said in its petition. The college insists all faculty members are ministers—it requires faculty to integrate their faith and academic discipline and assist in the spiritual formation of students—and contends courts should not second-guess that claim.
Another case presents a similar but slightly different issue: Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission v. Woods, in which the nonprofit homeless ministry is asking the court to reverse a Washington Supreme Court ruling in March requiring the ministry to hire employees who do not share the ministry’s religious beliefs. In the unanimous ruling, the court confined the religious exemption in the state’s nondiscrimination law to the ministerial exception—meaning the only employees the ministry can insist agree with its statement of faith and standards of conduct are those performing vital religious functions.
If the ruling stands, churches and other ministries in the state will be required to hire employees with beliefs that undermine the ministry—beliefs like those of Michael Woods, the bisexual man in a same-sex relationship who applied for a job in the legal aid clinic at the mission because he wanted to challenge the mission’s beliefs on marriage and sexuality.
A petition in the final case, Trustees of the New Life In Christ Church v. City of Fredericksburg, Virginia, asks the court to overturn a ruling by a Virginia circuit court that the state’s tax exemption for property occupied by ministers did not include a couple hired for ministry to college students. New Life considered Josh and Anacari Storms ministers, yet the Virginia court waded into the Presbyterian Church of America’s Book of Church Order, concluding that only ordained ministers could qualify for the exemption—even though the Virginia law did not define “minister.”
At the root of all three cases lie questions about the extent of religious autonomy under the First Amendment, said Thomas Berg, a constitutional law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis. All continue to explore the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, when it decided elementary school teachers at two Catholic schools qualified as ministers
Berg supports religious autonomy but recognizes the challenges the court-fashioned doctrine poses. “Courts are worried that the ministerial exception is strong medicine,” he said, noting that, when applied, it cuts off all challenges to decisions by the religious institution.
Berg also said the ability of ministries to hire only those who agree with their beliefs—the so-called co-religionist exception embodied in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as well as most state nondiscrimination laws—is increasingly being challenged by those claiming the exception should be limited to claims of religious discrimination. Ministries could limit hiring to someone of their religion if that view prevails but, ironically, could not insist that those hired practice the tenets of the faith.
If the court chooses to review any of these rulings, it could clarify the independence religious institutions enjoy under the First Amendment—and limit governmental second-guessing.
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