Why We Need (or Can Live With) a Ministerial Exception

The Foghorn has played host lately to a whirlwind of contentious issues. So having something to agree on as a staff when it comes to religion and politics might be considered—wait for it—a miracle.
When the Supreme Court handed down the ruling on Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC in early January, it was, in our view, a wise decision.
In the ruling, the Court unanimously upheld the right of religious organizations to make use of otherwise illegal employment criteria to hire (and fire) a so-called minister.

In this case, the “minister” in question was not a pastor or preacher who had been dismissed because of his race or sexuality. Less dramatically, the case in question involved a teacher, Cheryl Perich, who taught at a Christian grammar school in Michigan. Her time spent on religious instruction was relatively small compared to the time spent on rest of her curriculum. She took disability leave for several months, and later found herself asked to resign from her position after she was cleared by her doctor to return to teaching. After threatening a lawsuit against the school for not allowing her to return to work, Perich was dismissed for insubordination.
This issue really comes in two parts; first, should ministers be exempt from employment protections which prevent discrimination on the basis of race, gender, creed, age, or other arbitrary standard? The answer is a simple yes, if only because religions should have the right to choose their leaders (even if the choices are distasteful) without government interference.

Second, why does a schoolteacher who plans more for math, reading and science lessons get elevated to the level of “minister” when teaching a religion class is more an incidental than a central part of her job description? Can we allow for the Court’s intentionally loose definition of “minister” to stand, considering the potential abuse of the title by unscrupulous religious employers?
Yes. This is an issue of what differentiates the process of vetting ministers from that of recruiting a graphic designer, forklift operator, or accountant. In a nutshell, determining a suitable minister is primarily a morally, spiritually motivated decision. It has less to do with increasing profit margins or determining who will make up a church’s maintenance staff.

Another thing to remember is that the ministerial exception, in practice, doesn’t translate into giving religious organizations total license over whom to hire as their leaders.

For example, if we found the Jesuits refused to ordain black priests, they wouldn’t have the government to answer to, but they would have us Catholic and non-Catholic students alike (as well as the Church hierarchy) to check them. If we likewise saw the Jesuits extending the title of “minister” to our cafeteria workers in order to terminate their employment at will, they might not hear from the government (at least right away), but—we’re confident—they’ll have us to answer to.

Shortly put, we think there is enough of a factor of good faith on the part of religious organizations,—and a check in the from of decent and socially conscientious people—to make the ministerial exception work at least tolerably well.

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