On Wednesday the US Supreme Court issued its most important religious freedom ruling in years. Religious freedom is under increasing pressure in the US, Ireland and elsewhere, and the question was whether the court in this particular case would rule in favour of religious freedom or against it. It ruled in favour.
Under consideration was the so-called ministerial exception which allows US religious organisations to determine who gets to serve as a religious minister and who doesn't and under what circumstances.
But in the case in question, involving a Lutheran employer, Obama’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) tried to set down severe limits on the exemption and in so doing give the State much more power to decide when Churches can hire and fire ministers.
Justice Stephen Breyer (a Clinton appointee by the way) said a watering down of the exemption could even lead to the US Government telling the Catholic Church to ordain women priests.
In other words a watering down of the exception could lead to major violations of Church/State separation by the State.
Writing in the First Things blog, legal expert Matthew Franck draws out a number of other important implications of the ruling.
Above all, he links the ruling to the stance taken by the Obama administration in forcing religious employers to cover contraception, abortifacients, sterilization etc in the health insurance cover they provide for their employees regardless of the beliefs of the employer.
As Franck points out, the only “religious exception” offered so far by Obama's Department of Health and Human Services is so narrow that “even the ministry of Jesus would not qualify.”
Essentially a religious organisation is exempted from this insurance requirement only if its serves exclusively members of its own religion. But Jesus’ ministry reached out beyond the Jewish community, and the Christian Churches have always reached out beyond Christians in offering services to people.
“It is as though the Obama administration is staffed by people who have never encountered the ministry to the world that is so common among religious folk—especially but not uniquely among Christians,” Franck says.
The administration used similar logic in the case before the Supreme Court.
It said that because the minister at the centre of the case was not involved in exclusively religious duties she did not fall under the ministerial exception.
Chief Justice Roberts set the record straight in Wednesday’s ruling: 'It is true that her religious duties consumed only 45 minutes of each workday, and that the rest of her day was devoted to teaching secular subjects. The EEOC regards that as conclusive, contending that any ministerial exception “should be limited to those employees who perform exclusively religious function.” . . . We cannot accept that view. Indeed, we are unsure whether any such employees exist. The heads of congregations themselves often have a mix of duties, including secular ones, such as helping to manage the congregation’s finances, supervising purely secular personnel, and overseeing the upkeep of facilities.'
“Likewise, a Catholic hospital, or a Christian college, or church, synagogue, or mosque running a soup kitchen is chiefly engaged in activities that might be called “secular”: healing, teaching, feeding the poor. But they do these things in response to a calling to serve the world, a calling that flows out of a wellspring of faith. They must not be asked, in order to pursue that calling, to betray their faith by acceding to insurance rules they regard as immoral.”
Franck also cites an opinion by Justice Alito, joined by Justice Kagan, which says that the Court has “long recognized that the Religion Clauses protect a private sphere within which religious bodies are free to govern themselves in accordance with their own beliefs.”
Justice Alito's point is that, if they are to understand religious freedom correctly, courts “must avoid inquiring into whether religious reasons given for internal governance decisions are merely 'pretexts' for evading legal obligations”.
Alito wrote: “In order to probe the real reason . . . a civil court—and perhaps a jury—would be required to make a judgment about church doctrine.” Just imagine a “civil factfinder sitting in ultimate judgment of what the accused church really believes, and how important that belief is to the church’s overall mission.”
This, Franck points out, is precisely what the Obama administration is trying to do with its stance over health insurance and the employees of the Catholic Church, “make a political judgment that the beliefs of Catholics and others regarding contraception and abortion are not really important to the “overall mission” of religious hospitals, schools, and soup kitchens—as the government understands that mission.
“The Obama administration deserves to be rebuked for the hostility to religious liberty in its proposed HHS rules, for the same reasons its EEOC lost yesterday.”