FIRST-PERSON: A major legal case for church-run schools

Baptist Press
Posted: Aug 04, 2011 5:52 PM
FIRST-PERSON: A major legal case for church-run schools
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (BP)--Most would agree that a church should be able to open a school to ensure that its children get an education that conforms with its religious teachings. It follows that a church should be able to employ only those teachers who actually agree with its religious principles and apply them to their lives. But this important aspect of religious freedom is now under attack, and its fate rests in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last year, a church school in Redford, Mich., was dealt a blow to its independence from government control by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Hosanna-Tabor is affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and operates a church and school. All the school teachers lead weekly chapel services, teach a 30-minute religion class four days per week, lead prayer three times per day, and teach a morning devotional. In fact, most of the teachers are commissioned as ministers. So when an issue came up that prompted the church to dismiss one of its teachers, the church naturally believed that a "ministerial exception" would apply.

Courts have long recognized the "ministerial exception," which prohibits courts from getting involved in the relationship between a religious organization and its ministers. This independence (often referred to as "church autonomy") from government control is considered vital because ministers are recognized by the law as the lifeblood of the church.

While the Sixth Circuit upheld this principle in EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church, it failed to apply it because it found the teacher in question was not really a minister. The court said she wasn't a minister because she spent six hours a day teaching secular subjects like math, social studies and music. Only an hour or so was spent on exclusively religious instruction. So the school was prohibited from firing the teacher, even though she allegedly violated church teachings regarding mediation of disputes among believers.

The court failed to recognize something even Christians sometimes forget -- our biblical worldview and Christian principles affect all aspects of our lives. That certainly includes how we teach our children all subjects -- even those that don't appear to be "religious" -- such as music and social studies. It even includes math, as demonstrated by the great mathematicians Sir Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes.

The good news is that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review the Sixth Circuit's decision this year. It will be the first time the court has directly ruled on the ministerial exception, which is widely recognized by lower courts. This will likely have significant ramifications for all churches that want to employ only those individuals who agree with and abide by their church's teaching. For example, if the court doesn't get this ruling right, a church could be forced to hire someone engaged in an immoral sexual relationship to head up its daycare ministry.

Please be in prayer for this important case. The Alliance Defense Fund recently became involved in the matter at the trial level, and one of our allies, the Becket Fund, is representing the school before the U.S. Supreme Court. We will continue to work to help the court come to a decision that protects religious freedom and keeps the government out of the business of churches.


Kevin Theriot is senior litigation counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund. This column first appeared at the blog of, an ADF resource for churches.

Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press