Supreme Court

Supreme Court decision could harm religion

JimCoffinBy James Coffin

Religious leaders from nearly every major faith tradition rejoiced over the unanimous Supreme Court decision in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al, handed down on January 11, 2012.

The court’s decision–which some observers say is the most significant religious-liberty decision in two decades–grants religious entities greater freedom from judicial oversight in dealing with employees who play some form of “minister” role.

“For the Adventist Church in the U.S., this means courts will not be second-guessing the hiring and firing of our pastors and teachers,” says Todd McFarland of the Office of General Counsel at the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s world headquarters.

But the rejoicing may be premature and overly enthusiastic. In fact, the Supreme Court’s decision could actually work to the disadvantage of religious entities long-term.

To begin with, the decision isn’t as far-reaching as attorney McFarland implies. The case’s syllabus (an official synopsis of the decision) states clearly: “Today the Court holds only that the ministerial exception bars an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister . . . . The Court expresses no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits” (emphasis mine).

But because the decision was unanimous, and because it has been heralded as such a landmark victory for religious liberty, religious entities risk presuming too much and becoming high-handed in how they treat their “ministers.” Such a response could actually increase the number of suits filed against religious entities.

Though the court ruled broadly concerning which employees can be considered “ministers,” it ruled narrowly about how much religious entities are free to ignore otherwise-applicable laws. Only discrimination laws were addressed in this case.

In a posting on the website of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Christian educator Don Byrd sounds this caution: “The freedom to make certain employment decisions without government interference leaves intact the moral obligation to act honorably, to treat employees honestly, and to make religious decisions based upon true religious beliefs. Support for a broad definition of the ministerial exception should not imply support for a broad license to discriminate with impunity.”

No one wants the government dictating to religion about who its leaders must be. But when religion’s employees don’t have the protection afforded by a labor union, when in some situations they’re forbidden (as an article of faith) from seeking redress in the courts, and when the courts have made it clear that the “ministerial exception” includes far more employees than just rabbis, pastors, imams and other similarly recognized spiritual leaders, many employees of religious entities effectively have no court of appeal in employment disputes. Thus it’s incumbent on religions to cross every “t” and dot every “i” of proper protocol and general fairness in dealing with their employees.

Religious entities in general, though at one time placed on a pedestal by the rank and file, have squandered a large amount of goodwill in recent years. Organized religion doesn’t have a consistent track record of treating others as they’d like to be treated. The Golden Rule is too often lost sight of. As a result, according to the American Religious Identification Survey, the so-called “Nones” (no religious affiliation) are the fastest-growing religious status. That should be sobering to all religious people, especially religious leaders.

The real danger for those of us in the business of religion is that we’ll forget that winning a Supreme Court victory isn’t the same as winning in the court of public opinion. In the court of public opinion, favorable rulings come when religious entities are perceived to consistently deliver fair and principled treatment to all employees, to all adherents and to the general public.

That’s where the winning really counts.

James Coffin, a retired pastor, is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.