The Supreme Court Speaks: A Major Victory for Religious Liberty

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down one of the most important decisions on religious liberty in recent decades. For the first time, the Court held that there is indeed a ministerial exemption that allows churches and religious organizations to discriminate in ways that other employers cannot. The Court’s decision was unanimous, and the affirmation of religious liberty and the right of churches to hire religious teachers without state interference is fundamentally important.

The case emerged when a teacher in a Lutheran church school in Michigan was terminated by the church. She sued, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] sided with her, bringing a suit against the church. The teacher was a “called teacher” in the church’s program, which meant that she had the responsibility to teach the church’s beliefs. The EEOC and lower courts had held that there is no ministerial exemption that would force the EEOC to drop the case. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts rejected that logic, calling the view put forth by the EEOC and the Obama Administration “remarkable.”

The Chief Justice reviewed the history of religious liberty in the United States and England, noting that the founders of the United States wanted to ensure that the state could not interfere in the churches’ hiring of ministers. Pointing to the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution, Roberts wrote: “The Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.”

Directly rejecting the arguments of the EEOC and the findings of the lower court, the Chief Justice stated: “We cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.”

He also wrote: “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the Court should have gone further, granting to religious organizations the sole and final authority to determine who is and is not covered by the ministerial exemption. Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan wrote a second concurring opinion, arguing that the issue of ordination should not be the determining issue, since ordination practices, titles, and other designations of ministers differ by church, denomination, and religious group.

In his opinion, the Chief Justice also stated clearly that the EEOC has no right to declare that a church has wrongly terminated a minister. In his words, “it is precisely such a ruling that is barred by the ministerial exemption.”

By any measure, this is an important and vital decision. One way to consider its importance is to ponder what the opposite finding would have meant. In this case, this would mean that there is no ministerial exemption, and that churches, church schools, Christian colleges and seminaries, and any number of church-based employers, would be forbidden to hire and fire on theological and doctrinal grounds.

In other words, the government would be able to direct and limit churches and church schools in matters of hiring those with teaching and ministerial responsibility.

This would mean, effectively, the end of religious liberty. Thankfully, the Court preserved religious liberty, and did so in an opinion that is clear in its findings and declarations. Add to this the fact that the decision was unanimous — and be thankful.

A Warning of Intimidations to Come

The defense of the Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA] got a little more complicated yesterday as the law firm that the House of Representatives had hired to defend the law withdrew from the case. As The New York Times stated bluntly, the firm dropped the case “amid pressure from gay rights groups.”

The Atlanta-based firm, King & Spalding, had agreed to take the case, and one of its lawyers, Paul D. Clement, was to lead the legal effort to defend the constitutionality of DOMA, which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman in terms of federal recognition. The law also prevents any state from being forced to grant legal recognition to a same-sex marriage performed in another state.

Robert D. Hays, Jr., chairman of King & Spalding, released a statement in which he said: “In reviewing this assignment further, I determined that the process used for vetting this engagement was inadequate. … Ultimately I am responsible for any mistakes that occurred and apologize for the challenges this may have created.”

Clement, a former solicitor general of the United States under President George W. Bush, immediately resigned from King & Spalding and will continue to represent the House of Representatives in the case.

As The New York Times reported, Clement said: “I resign out of the firmly held belief that a representation should not be abandoned because the client’s legal position is extremely unpopular in certain quarters. … Defending unpopular clients is what lawyers do. I recognized from the outset that this statute implicates very sensitive issues that prompt strong views on both sides. But having undertaken the representation, I believe there is no honorable course for me but to complete it.”

Gay rights groups hailed the law firm’s decision. Activist groups such as the Human Rights Campaign had lobbied King & Spalding to drop the case. The Weekly Standard obtained copies of emails sent by the Human Rights Campaign to supporters that read, in part: “Later that day we announced the elements of our campaign to show King & Spalding’ hypocrisy for taking on Defense of DOMA while touting their pro-gay policies – including their 95% score on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index. … In the meantime we also contacted many of the firm’s clients, LGBT student groups at top law schools and used social media to inform the public about K&S’s wrongheaded decision.”

The success of the group’s efforts to intimidate King & Spalding serves as a warning of things to come. This is the kind of intimidation that will be used against any organization or institution — or law firm — that takes a controversial case and opposes the agenda of the gay rights movement. Watch and be warned.

We should also take special note of the statement by Paul Clement. He defended his commitment to defend DOMA and the U.S. House of Representatives by stating, “Defending unpopular clients is what lawyers do.”

So, now DOMA and the House of Representatives fall under the category of “unpopular clients” despite the fact that DOMA was passed by the overwhelming vote of both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. That statement underlines the moral revolution happening in our midst and indicates what groups like the Human Rights Campaign are certain is the direction of history. Armed with that confidence, intimidation is now the order of their day.

Life — Not Only for “the Perfect, the Privileged, and the Planned”

One of America’s most brilliant voices on behalf of the unborn is now silent. Dr. Mildred Jefferson, the first black woman to graduate from the Harvard Medical School, died on October 15 at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When the infamous Roe v. Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1973, Dr. Jefferson was stunned and outraged. She saw the decision not only as a direct assault upon the unborn, but also upon the ethics of her cherished profession. She later told the U.S. Congress that the decision “gave my profession an almost unlimited license to kill.”

Throughout her long life, Dr. Jefferson remained a stalwart defender of the unborn, and she was a sworn enemy of the Culture of Death. A surgeon, she dedicated her life to preserving and extending the lives of others. She was bracingly honest about what abortion meant for the medical profession:

“With the obstetrician and mother becoming the worst enemy of the child and the pediatrician becoming the assassin for the family,” Dr. Jefferson told Congress, “the state must be enabled to protect the life of the child, born and unborn.”

She once summarized her sense of urgency with these words: “I am at once a physician, a citizen and a woman, and I am not willing to stand aside and allow this concept of expendable human lives to turn this great land of ours into just another exclusive reservation where only the perfect, the privileged and the planned have the right to live.”

Rarely do we encounter such moral clarity matched to such personal courage.