Supremes Unanimous in Religious Liberty Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously affirmed this week that religious organizations should be able to select their own leaders without interference from the government. In deciding the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, all nine Justices agreed that the EEOC was out of step with the Constitution by challenging the ability of the Hosanna-Tabor Church & School to terminate the employment of one of its teachers, who was a “called” minister. 

At stake was the “ministerial exception” to employment laws for leaders of religious organizations. The opinion of the Court, penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, noted that the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, which sometimes create an “internal tension,” both clearly lie in favor of the “ministerial exception”:

The Court agrees that there is such a ministerial exception. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. 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. 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.

The Court also rebuked the EEOC for its argument against this church:

Their position, however, is hard to square with the text of the First Amendment itself, which gives special solicitude to the rights of religious organizations. The Court cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.

Douglas Laycock, a law professor who represented the church before the Supreme Court, called this “a huge win for religious liberty. It was unanimous, it was sweeping and it was unqualified…. Churches do not run the government, select government leaders, or set criteria for choosing government leaders. And government does not run the churches, select religious leaders, or set criteria for choosing religious leaders.”

  • Read NRB’s release welcoming the Hosanna-Tabor decision.
  • Read the Supreme Court’s decision on this case and Professor Laycock’s follow-up comments.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations