The issue of religious liberty has been becoming more prominent in Supreme Court (SCOTUS) cases in recent years, and this term was no exception. This is an issue I get rather worked up about. I really don’t like government interference with the church. There were two cases this term which bear on religious liberty, and we got a split decision, so to speak.

The first of the two cases this term that are relevant here is Bostock v. Clayton County. While Bostock doesn’t explicitly deal with religious liberty head on, it has serious potential implications. The case has to do with workplace discrimination against persons who identify as LGBTQ. A guy was fired for joining a gay softball league and sued his employer. SCOTUS ruled that the 1964 civil rights act, which forbids employers from discriminating in hiring/firing on the basis of gender, also applies to LGBTQ. My initial reaction was to roll my eyes at the court once again stretching the meaning of words in order to ‘update’ old laws to fit new cultural views, rather than leaving new legislation to Congress, but I digress. Anyway, I’m glad someone now can’t be fired for joining a gay softball league. And I don’t like employers having the ability to fire someone for anything they may do outside of work. So it would seem like this case is not a big deal, except…

The opinion did not state that there is an exemption for churches and religious schools. It didn’t say there isn’t one either, but it was expected that the court would emphasize that the so-called “ministerial exception” applies to this matter. The ministerial exception means that, for example, churches that believe that only men should be pastors don’t have to hire women pastors. The court dodged this point, as was their right as the employer in question was not a religious institution. In so doing, the court invited challenges to the ministerial exception, and such challenges are now sure to come.

This is no light matter. Churches that believe that Christian marriage is a one man, one woman thing and which hold to traditional views of God’s teaching on sexuality could be forced to hire gay pastors. They may also be forced to officiate same sex marriages. Seminaries that teach traditional views on sexuality could be forced to hire professors that espouse modern and culturally liberal views on sexuality. There are clear implications for religious liberty here.

Hopefully, when further challenges come to the ministerial exception, they will have trouble gaining traction, due to the second of this term’s cases, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru. Here, SCOTUS ruled 7-2 that a Catholic elementary school that fired two teachers has a First Amendment right to complete control over hiring and firing of religion teachers, free from government intervention. This is a positive development. However it is complicated somewhat, I think, by the fact that at least one of the teachers sued for age discrimination. From what I can tell, there was no accusation that the teacher(s) in question were not teaching in line with Catholic doctrine; rather, it was her general competence that was in dispute. I don’t think we want churches and schools to be able to fire people for being old and then hide behind the ministerial exception. That seems to go too far. Ugh.

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