Faced with a case that pitted religious freedom against the enforcement of anti-discrimination law, the Supreme Court this week made the right decision in holding that the government may not tell churches whom to hire — or fire — as ministers. Speaking for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. deftly upheld the principle of ecclesiastical autonomy rooted in the 1st Amendment without allowing it to serve as a pretext for stripping all employees of religious organizations of job protections.
The decision was a defeat for Cheryl Perich, a teacher at a Lutheran school in Michigan who threatened to sue under the disability act because she had not been invited to return to teaching after being diagnosed with narcolepsy. The Obama administration argued that Perich wasn't subject to a so-called ministerial exception from civil rights laws because she taught mostly secular subjects. But Roberts pointed out that she was, in Lutheran parlance, a "called teacher" and "commissioned minister" who had to undergo special theological training and be accepted by the congregation.
That might seem like a narrow holding. In fact, the decision is significant — and will be controversial — for two reasons. First, the ministerial exception it recognizes is a strong one. Not only may churches choose to hire, fire and refuse to hire individuals who "personify" their faith, but the government is forbidden to inquire into whether such decisions conceal ulterior motives.