Supreme Court to Review Rulings on Ministerial Exceptions for Religious Organizations to Make Independent Employment Decisions

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to rule once again on the freedom of churches and other religious organizations to make employment decisions without government interference.

The justices announced Dec. 18 they would review opinions by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that found two Roman Catholic schools in California do not have the right to fire teachers for the purpose of the “ministerial exception” recognized by the high court in a 2012 opinion. The Supreme Court has not scheduled oral arguments in the consolidated cases.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) joined other organizations this fall in urging the justices to review the Ninth Circuit’s decisions in the cases.

ERLC president Russell Moore told Baptist Press he hopes the Supreme Court will “correct the Ninth Circuit’s harmful ruling.”

“We don’t need a federal judiciary with the power to decide which theological beliefs deserve First Amendment protections,” Moore said in written comments. “Faith-based organizations ought to be able to hire those whose views are consistent with the organization’s beliefs, especially when those employees are responsible for teaching religious doctrine.”

In a unanimous decision nearly eight years ago, the Supreme Court ruled a “ministerial exception” exists that enables churches and other religious groups to hire and fire based on their beliefs. Government imposition on a church’s decision-making regarding the employees who teach doctrine would interfere with its “internal governance” and violate the First Amendment’s clause protecting the free exercise of religion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. That case involved the removal of a teacher by Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich.

The cases now before the Supreme Court also involve the termination of teachers by religious schools. The Catholic schools chose not to renew contracts for two fifth-grade teachers based on poor performance, according to Becket, a leading religious freedom organization that is representing the schools. Each teacher taught a religion class and led fifth-grade students in prayer daily, Becket reported.

In both suits by the teachers, federal judges ruled in favor of the schools based on the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in the Hosanna-Tabor case. The Ninth Circuit, however, reversed both opinions.

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Source: Baptist Press