The Supreme Court’s ruling this week that allows religious employers to hire and fire staff without fear of government interference has ushered a sense of relief across Christian ministries.
The 7-2 ruling court handed down Wednesday in Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel ensured protection for Catholic schools from wrongful termination lawsuits by former teachers, emboldening religious employers weeks after a separate decision found employees’ LGBTQ status protected under federal civil rights law.
“If a religious organization cannot recruit leaders who agree with the beliefs and practices of those organizations, then there can be no true religious freedom,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission with the Southern Baptist Convention, in a statement after Wednesday’s decision.
Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, and Bishop Michael C. Barber, chairman of the Committee on Catholic Education, released a joint statement cheering the decision as well.
“Education is a central aspect of the Church’s mission,” wrote Archbishop Wenski and Bishop Barber. “As institutions carrying out a ministry of the Church, Catholic schools have a right, recognized by the Constitution, to select people who will perform ministry. The government has no authority to second-guess those ministerial decisions.”
The decision serves as “something of a counterweight” to the decision in last month’s Bostock v. Clayton County ruling, in which the court said gender identity and sexual orientation are protected statuses under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, wrote John Melcon, a law clerk in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in an essay for Christianity Today.
“The takeaway is clear,” Mr. Melcon wrote. “Religious organizations of all types must define and articulate their core mission, then carefully and thoughtfully link employee responsibilities and duties — the things an employee does — to the mission.”
Mr. Melcon also urged employers to tie employees’ evaluations to mission-based goals.
However, some religious liberty advocates cautioned against employers using the ruling as a cudgel to “purge” its ranks of employees they deem morally unfit. Writing in America, Jesuit priest Matt Malone, editor in chief of America Media, called the court’s decision “correct” but said an “indiscriminate” firing of church employees who hold “unorthodox views” would be “wrong and would be a source of grave scandal for the faithful and for the country we seek to evangelize.”
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a teacher with the title “minister” could not sue her religious employer for wrongful termination because the private schools enjoyed an exception to federal labor law. Wednesday’s decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito, reaffirmed the rule, even when the teachers weren’t literally called “ministers” in their job titles and performed duties other than strictly religious in nature.