U.S. Supreme Court Delivers Decision in Landmark Religious Freedom Case

For Immediate Release 11 January 2012
The International Center for Law and Religion Studies

The United States Supreme Court has delivered its decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the most significant U.S. religious freedom case in twenty years. In a unanimous opinion, the Court held that employment discrimination suits against leaders and teachers of religious organizations impermissibly interfere with the internal governance of religious organizations and thus violate the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses. “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission. When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.” The International Center for Law and Religion Studies filed an amicus brief supporting the approach adopted by the Supreme Court.

In Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court reviewed the so-called “ministerial exception,” which all U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal had used to exempt churches from discrimination claims brought by their leaders and teachers. The Court upheld the necessity of this exception and reversed the Sixth Circuit’s narrow approach to determine who falls within the group of ministers. The Court emphasized the strong basis for this holding, noting that religious organizations do not just have the freedom of association rights of all groups, but also have specific rights under both clauses of the First Amendment. “According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.”

The petitioner, an ordained Lutheran minister who taught secular and religious subjects at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, claimed that the school fired her in retaliation for her claim of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Supreme Court refused to examine her claim of pretext, explaining: “The purpose of the exception is not to safeguard a church’s decision to fire a minister only when it is made for a religious reason. The exception instead ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful—a matter ‘strictly ecclesiastical,’ . . . —is the church’s alone.”

The Court rejected the argument that the Americans with Disabilities Act should be controlling as a “neutral law of general applicability.” Distinguishing Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, which permitted such laws to trump religious freedom exemption claims generally, the Court drew language from Smith which explained that government is permitted to regulate outward physical acts, but not “an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.” The Court reaffirmed a long line of cases, referenced in Smith, in which the Supreme Court has refused to permit government to impede a religious organizations’ choice of leadership. The Court limited its decision to claims by ministers in employment discrimination suits, and specifically did not address the relevance of the ministerial exemption to other circumstances.

Elizabeth A. Clark, Associate Director
International Center for Law and Religion Studies
Principal Drafter of the Center’s Hosanna-Tabor Amicus Brief