The ministerial exception

You can't sue me.

The Supreme Court has, for the first time, upheld what it calls the “ministerial exception”, which denies religious employees the right to sue their employers for discrimination. The aim of this exception is to keep government from meddling in the religious practice of its citizens.

The reasoning behind the ministerial exception is at least partly sound. As I’ve argued before, if hiring a person of a certain gender or ethnicity is forbidden by religious doctrine, then the religious organization should be permitted to discriminate against such groups, since the alternative is to force it to go against its beliefs.

The same goes for any other action performed by the institution: if that action is discriminatory because the institution’s beliefs require it to be discriminatory, then so be it. (The only exceptions I can think of are practices like female genital mutilation that do not involve proper consent of all participants, and therefore involve the forceful imposition of one person’s beliefs on another.)

But what if the discrimination is not motivated by religious doctrine? For instance, the particular case seen by the Supreme Court involves the firing of a teacher (Cheryl Perich) from a Lutheran church in Michigan. She was fired when she attempted to resume her work after a disability leave, because the church apparently preferred to keep her temporary replacement instead.

This incident is surely not religiously motivated. There is no Lutheran doctrine that calls for employees to be fired simply because they’ve been absent on sick leave.

In fact, this case really has nothing to do with religion whatsoever. It is not even necessary, as the Supreme Court claims, to consider what sort of work Perich was doing (she taught mostly secular classes, as it happens). That is, I believe, a red herring.

What is important is the motivation behind the discriminating behavior. And the discriminating behavior in this case was not religious.

Perich should have her day in court.


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