Religious liberty advocates celebrate this week with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Wednesday to acknowledge a religious institution’s constitutional rights to handle an employment incident according to their beliefs apart from governmental interference. The Supreme Court’s decision was unanimous among the justices despite the Obama administration’s opposing stance on the matter. Authorities project this Supreme Court case will act as precedent for future religious liberty disputes. The case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, revolves around Cheryl Perich, a “called” middle school teacher at Hosanna-Tabor. She earned the “called” status by undergoing prior theological training, exhibiting a willingness to lead children in religious activities, and being commissioned as a “Minister of Religion.” Because of a sleep disorder, Perich took leave from her teaching position for seven months in 2004. The school made temporary accommodations in the hopes of a quick recovery, but her elongated leave led the school to pursue alternative options. After waiting until the end of the semester, Hosanna-Tabor found a substitute to replace Perich. Upon return, Perich demanded her position back, but the school denied her request. She then threatened to sue the school. The church defined her behavior as insubordination, which led to the revocation of her commissioning, erasing her “called” status.
Following through with what she perceived as an offense, Perich pursued a legal course of action by linking arms with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC assessed that the school’s choice to fire Perich because of her insubordination and breach of church practices warranted a lawsuit. In an attempt to bypass the First Amendment’s two religious clauses and the “ministerial exception,” which was established by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Perich’s legal team ran headlong into respected authorities like Douglas Laycock. Laycock, professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Virginia, argued publicly in support of Hosanna-Tabor’s actions, deeming them constitutional. The Supreme Court unanimously adopted a similar interpretation of the Constitution in regards to the case.
The outcome of the ruling stands as a strong indicator that the whole court, even liberal judges, recognize the administration’s position as a grievous assault on religious liberty. While the Obama administration argued that “only those that stand up in worship services…get protection,” the Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in unanimous opinion with the court that “the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful is the church’s alone.” Therefore, the court granted the church the right to define the term minister without governmental interference. Before the unanimous vote in the high court, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty foresaw the Supreme Court’s preservation of religious liberty in this case as the precursor for a “revolution in church-state relations.” As sweeping and positive the Court’s decision is, it won’t stop liberal organizations and legislators from attempting to infringe on churches and faith based ministries. Already there are several bills seeking to add sexual orientation to the Commonwealth’s non-discrimination law & Human Rights Act. We must continue to vigilantly oppose these efforts, and now we have a unanimous Supreme Court decision on our side. In the wake of the victory, celebrants can only declare that it is a revolution and a stronghold for future generations.