The court's opinion in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission emphasizes what all 12 federal appeals courts have said at various times previously about "ministerial exception" and now underscores it with an exclamation point with a unanimous 9-0 Supreme Court decision, a rarity these days on a deeply philosophically split court.
The case in question centered on a former teacher who claimed her dismissal from a church school affiliated with the Missouri Synod Lutherans was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This court decision is a refreshing slam-dunk for America's constitutionally secured rights of religious freedom and religious expression.
It is a landmark ruling, which perhaps is the most significant positive decision in affirming our religious liberties in the past 20 years.
The Wall Street Journal, normally not know for hyperbole, said it was a "banner day," noting the ruling was a "crushing rebuke to the Obama administration."
The U.S. Justice Department had argued the teacher, who was "called" -- that is, religiously affiliated with the church school -- should not have been terminated. The Justice Department argued the school should reinstate the teacher, give her back pay and pay damages. The court's nine justices did not buy the Justice Department's deeply flawed argument that churches were no different than social clubs in respect to their First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court's unanimous ruling delivered yet another setback to the Obama administration's Justice Department.
In the court's opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said the government cannot meddle in a religious institution's employment decisions. Such an action, he wrote, "intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs" as well as "the right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments."
The Supreme Court's decision rightfully affirms that the autonomy of churches, synagogues, temples and other places of worship and any educational institutions affiliated with them are guaranteed in the constitution. The Obama administration sought to place churches in the same category as "social clubs" in determining the legality of employment actions, arguing the First Amendment has nothing to do with a church or other faith organization's right to hire or fire employees.
The court disagreed, saying the First Amendment gives "special solicitude to the rights of religious organizations." Indeed! Our forefathers never intended for religious organizations to be treated like secular institutions, which is why they specifically mentioned religion in the amendment's text.
The First Amendment exists to protect religious organizations from government interference and to guarantee Americans' free exercise of religion. Our nation's Founding Fathers firmly believed Americans should have the right to practice their faith according to the dictates of their own consciences.
This case is a tremendous victory for religious freedom. The fact that all nine justices agreed should not be lost on us. This decision demonstrates that there is an ideological consensus across the judicial spectrum from the left to the right on this issue, and that consensus is completely at odds with the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department.
It should be also noted that a small Lutheran church and school took on the full might of the federal government's legal machinery and won. As Deano Ware, the lead attorney for the school, said: "For six years I fought the government, sacrificing my practice and livelihood because I believed the government had no right to choose teachers for our small school. ... In the end, we showed up at the steps of the Supreme Court with our sling and stone, in the company of the Becket Fund and the greater community of faith, fought the government and won. This is a great day for all Americans of every of faith and all freedom-loving citizens."
It is difficult for someone like me, who grew up in the 1960s, to believe that in 2012 the most conservative branch of the federal government is the Supreme Court of the United States. But it is so. Well done, justices. As The Wall Street Journal proclaimed in its headline, "Hosannas for the Court."
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
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