Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Church & State... never simple

Justice is a central pillar of my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.  I believe in civil rights for women, racial minorities, sexual minorities, religious minorities and, especially, any minorities I missed.  I believe in the role of the law in enforcing anti-discrimination laws.  Indeed, if anything, I believe they should be stronger than they now are... except...

I have to say I cringe even as I write this, except when we're talking about religious institutions.  Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear a case involving a Lutheran school in Michigan who fired a woman.  She says it was because of a disability.  They say that the government has no say in hiring and firing of people who transmit the values and teachings of a religious institution and that her behavior showed that she was not fit to do just that.  That principal is broadly accepted when it comes to clergy.  It makes sense there.  If a religion believes that one must be Jewish to be a Rabbi, it is understandable that they will discriminate against non-Jews.  Ditto for a group that believes women cannot be priests not being held legally culpable for not hiring women priests.  It makes sense that the leader of a religious organization can be required to fit with all of the tenants of that faith, whatever they might be. What happens, though, in a situation where the person under consideration is not clergy and may even have a majority of responsibilities that could rightly be described as "secular?"  In this case, the woman was a teacher who taught primarily "secular" subjects although she did lead prayers and perform other religious duties.  

The case has brought together the strangest bedfellows ever with everyone from the Southern Baptists to The National Council of Churches, Yoruba, and Hare Krishna's supporting the Lutherans.  The Baptist Joint Committee , has filed a brief in support of the school, arguing that 

Indeed, questions that might seem facially nonreligious take on a religious coloration in a dispute between a religious organization and one of its ministers. ...
This case exemplifies how theological or religious issues are almost impossible to avoid in cases involving employees with spiritual duties...  
Ultimately, the church congregation terminated Perich‘s commission because, given her behavior surrounding the request to return, it had lost confidence in her ability to represent the school‘s purposes to children... [I]t is up to the Church, not a jury or judge, to decide whether she could be effective.
It is true that allowing for such a broad interpretation of the current law regarding "ministerial exemptions" may open the door for serious abuse by religious organizations.  Still, a more narrow interpretation impinges on their ability to live out their faith.  The government has no right to do that.

2 comments:

Michael Mahoney said...

I'm on the fence with this one. One the one hand, I prefer that the courts err on the side of caution when it comes to protecting the rights of religious institutions to determine what is faith-based and what is not. The argument that Hosanna-Tabor is making is that it is a tenent of their flavor of Lutherinism that disputes among members of the faith be handled internally, and that has some scriptural traction. (1 Cor 6) In addition, they are stating that a condition of the teacher's commission was that she would resign if an absence longer than six months was required. She was free to decline the commission under those conditions; however, she did not and accepted the position. Seems like sour grapes now in light of that. I'm not really sure that this qualifies as "discrimination" per-se, though. I would think she would need to demonstrate that someone took more than six months off for a reason other than narcolepsy and was allowed to remain. As it is the church is simply enforcing thier stated employment policy. That's hardly discrimination.

On the other hand, the school is showing a disturbing lack of grace by firing her in the first place.

roy said...

It is unfortunate, Michael, that this sloppy case is the one that raises the issue. Whether the government has the right to do something or not doesn't absolve the religious organization from acting with integrity... and that isn't clear in this case. Still, whether the organization acted with integrity doesn't answer the question of the government's rights.