In a landmark ruling the US Supreme Court says churches, not the Government, should control the employment of ‘ministers of religion’.
The unanimous ruling is a blow to President Obama, whose administration wanted the ruling to go the other way.
The case centres around a former teacher at a church school who was dismissed for insubordination and “regrettable” conduct to church leaders.
But the teacher, who suffered from narcolepsy, claimed her dismissal was a breach of disability discrimination laws. Her case was backed by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The Lutheran church that runs the school said the teacher’s job involved communicating the church’s teaching, and therefore she was a minister of religion.
The church said it should have the freedom to make decisions about hiring and firing its ministers of religion without Government interference.
The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court where all nine judges, including liberals and conservatives, ruled in the church’s favour.
One of the judges went further, saying the court should have ruled that churches themselves should be the sole arbiters of who is and is not covered by the ministerial exemption.
Chief Justice John Roberts said: “Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision.
“Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.
“By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the free exercise clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.”
The Court’s verdict has been described as a “crushing rebuke to the Obama administration”, and has been hailed as a victory for religious freedom.
Douglas Laycock, a law professor who represented the Church, described the ruling as a “huge win for religious liberty”.
Matthew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, said: “The Government’s extreme view that churches have no right to control who will communicate their message would allow the Government to control churches.
“It makes no sense to tie the hands of a church when the messenger is undermining the message”.