Churches And Job Bias

The ‘Ministerial Exception’ Sometimes Goes Too Far

Houses of worship have wide latitude to hire and manage their staffs. When it comes to people serving as ministers or in a largely religious function, the government may not interfere in this relationship. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, does not ordain women, and its churches don’t have to employ them as priests.

But what about some of the other projects religious groups run these days? If a church operates a book store, should it be permitted to fire a clerk for reasons unrelated to religion?

The Supreme Court will examine this question in an important case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which tests the limits of what is called the “ministerial exception.” Generally speaking, U.S. law prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion or national origin. Houses of worship are an exception and don’t have to abide by these rules when hiring clergy.

A dispute has arisen about how far this exception should go. This is more than theoretical. In this age of “faith-based” initiatives, houses of worship are reaching into more and more areas of life. They run colleges, hospitals, social services, radio and television networks, commercial enterprises and so on. Should all of their employees with religious responsibilities receive no civil rights protections?

It’s a fair question. To answer it, Americans United filed a brief before the high court proposing a sensible middle ground: The right of houses of worship to use theological criteria when hiring employees with clear religious duties must remain inviolable. But they shouldn’t have the right to dismiss people on other grounds and call it religious freedom.

In other words, if a church fires a female clerk from a book store simply because the manager doesn’t like women, the clerk – even a clerk who is considered a “ministerial employee” – should at least have the right to have her day in court. Her firing, after all, was due to the manager’s personal animus against women; it had nothing to do with the religious tenets of the church.

No one is saying these issues are easy. They pit the rights of religious organizations against those of individuals. The playing field currently tilts too heavily toward churches and against individual employees. The Supreme Court should use the Hosanna-Tabor case to even things out a little.