SCOTUS Issues Landmark Religious Freedom Ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously voted last week that churches are not bound by some workplace discrimination laws. It's being called the most significant ruling on religious freedom in decades. Host Michel Martin discusses the decision with The Washington Post editorial writer and legal affairs expert Eva Rodriguez.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we are going to talk about the kinds of things you could be doing now to get a jump on your taxes. How fun is that?

But first, we're going to take a look at what's being called the most important Supreme Court ruling on religious freedom in this country in decades. The case involved Cheryl Parrish. She'd been a teacher at a Lutheran-run school in Michigan. She'd taken some time off due to a medical condition and was not welcomed back. She threatened to sue and the school later fired her.

Parrish pressed forward with a lawsuit claiming that her firing violated laws against discrimination. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. Last week, the court sided with the school in a unanimous decision. The ruling asserted that the firing was justified due to a, quote, "ministerial exception to laws that ordinarily protect employees from workplace discrimination."

We wanted to talk about just what this means, so we've called upon, once again, Eva Rodriguez. She's a Washington Post editorial writer who specializes in legal affairs. She's also a former editor-in-chief of Legal Times.

Thanks so much for joining us once again. Happy New Year to you.

EVA RODRIGUEZ: Happy New Year to you. Thanks.

MARTIN: Just, you know, we're so used to hearing how polarized this court is, especially on hot-button issues. How unusual is it to have a unanimous decision in a case like this?

RODRIGUEZ: I think, in a case like this, it's rare. I was shocked, to be honest with you, that it was nine-zero. I expected those justices, who we end to think of as more liberal, to have more trouble, if you will, with granting the church an exception from applying discrimination retaliation laws. I was shocked.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, the Obama administration had argued that her case should be essentially the same whether she'd been employed by a church, a labor union, a social club or any other group with free association rights under the first amendment. And the reason I'm highlighting the Obama administration, they didn't bring this case, but they had sided with Cheryl Parrish. And the court did not buy that argument. What did they say?

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. They didn't buy it at all. They said: Dear Mr. President, look at the Constitution, the First Amendment, and while labor unions and churches do enjoy affiliation, that religion is specifically and especially protected under the First Amendment.

And so, to that extent, something that a church would be protected from, a lawsuit against discrimination, a labor union might very well be vulnerable to that. Religion has a special place in the Constitution and all nine justices agreed.

MARTIN: Now, tell me about this ministerial exception argument. This is something that critics of the decision are pointing to. Now, she was not an ordained minister, but she had had religious training. I mean, she was called upon to teach religion as one of her subjects, but that took about, like, 45 minutes out of the school day.

RODRIGUEZ: Right.

MARTIN: So tell me more about this ministerial exception and why it's at the core of this decision.

RODRIGUEZ: Right. It's important to understand, I think, that in the Lutheran Church and in Lutheran schools, there are two classes of teachers: a lay teacher, someone who may not even be Lutheran who is a contract teacher for a year. Maybe you can get extensions.

And then there are called teachers. These teachers - and Ms. Parrish was one of those - those with special training, religious seminars and they are called. They are essentially ordained by the church to come and teach. That is a permanent position and, in fact, it's looked upon as, you know - without the title of minister, it is looked upon as a religious leader within the community and, especially when working with kids, you're the person who, on a daily basis, is bringing forth, you know, teaching the faith to the next generation.

MARTIN: What was the specific action that triggered her firing? And that is, I think, the part that some people are puzzled by.

RODRIGUEZ: It's really interesting and it's not what I would have thought. What triggered her firing was her threat to sue and the Lutheran Church came back and said, you know, according to our teachings - and they point to First Corinthians - every dispute within the church has to be handled within the church.

And it's understood that you cannot - you should not go to an outside secular court. And, you know, I'm not a Lutheran. I've never heard of this, but in fact it's part of the doctrine and if we're to respect religious freedom, it may not be something that is part of my church or my synagogue or my mosque, but we have to respect those differences. And that's what the Court ultimately said.

MARTIN: Now, there are people like - obviously, you know, the Conference of Catholic Bishops and other large national denominations with a large presence are hailing this ruling as a very important guarantor of their religious rights, religious freedom rights and the right to practice their religion in the way they see fit. What are some of the critics saying?

RODRIGUEZ: The critics are saying, well, if this teacher, who didn't have the title of minister, who is not a priest or a rabbi, could be vulnerable to retaliation by the church, who wouldn't be? Right? The laws don't apply to the church or to the synagogue or to any religious organization.

The court was very clear in saying, look, we're deciding this case very narrowly. We don't know if tomorrow a janitor who worked at the school, but is not a Lutheran, is not called, brings a retaliation suit. We may very well let that go. They said, we're not going to make a big, sweeping decision here as important as this is because we don't know what other permutations are to follow. They're sort of keeping their powder dry.

MARTIN: Now, what about - so they're saying, as denominations like the Salvation - they didn't say this specific in the decision, but denominations like the Salvation Army - and for those who don't know, it is, in fact, a religious denomination, but a majority of the employees who work in the ministries sort of so well known around the country are not members of that specific denomination.

They would not be covered, but you're saying a person who is an ordained minister, and that is a term that is specific to some denominations and there are those people who fall within - if they have a dispute, they're expected to follow the religious tenets...

RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

MARTIN: And that is covered.

RODRIGUEZ: Yes. Someone who is specifically tapped - whether the word is ordained or what have you - someone who is tapped by the church and who is looked upon by the church as a religious leader is probably not going to be able to avail themselves of discrimination and retaliation laws that, you know, those who aren't would be.

MARTIN: What if someone were to resign his or her vows, as it were, to renounce his or her vows or to be released from his or her vows?

RODRIGUEZ: That's a great question. I don't know. I don't know what happens then. I mean, think about a priest who wants to get married, leaves the church and then comes back and says, you know, I'm suing you for discrimination because I wanted to get married. He probably wouldn't prevail because...

MARTIN: Or sexual harassment, let's say. There have been a number of - as we mentioned last week, this was the 10th anniversary of the revelation of the sexual abuse scandal directed at children...

RODRIGUEZ: Right.

MARTIN: ...in the Boston Archdiocese, which is a huge scandal with, you know, ongoing repercussions.

RODRIGUEZ: Right. Well, I think that the Court was - it was a little bit opaque here, but fairly clear that, if we're talking about violation of criminal laws, this ministerial exception probably would not apply. If you were a church worker and you're reporting the abuse of a child to law enforcement officials, that in and of itself is not a religious tenet that you're violating, and it will probably be OK for you to go forward, but again, they didn't, you know, talk about this specifically, saying, we'll deal with that when and if it arises.

MARTIN: Eva Rodriguez covers legal affairs for the Washington Post. She writes about them for the editorial board. She's also a former editor-in-chief of Legal Times and she's telling us about the recent Supreme Court ruling that provides and exception to employment discrimination laws in cases involving churches and religious organizations. We're talking about the so-called ministerial exception. This is a rare unanimous ruling by this court.

Eva, finally, did any of the people that sort of commonly described as liberal wing of the Court speak out specifically about this? We know that the decision itself was written by, what, the Chief Justice.

RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

MARTIN: John, you know, Roberts.

RODRIGUEZ: John Roberts.

MARTIN: And, of course, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, I believe, also wrote a concurring opinion.

RODRIGUEZ: Right, right.

MARTIN: Did any of the so-called liberal wing have their own voice on this? And what did they say, if they did?

RODRIGUEZ: There was a third opinion here. I mean, again, agreeing with the whole, but Justice Alito, with Justice Kagan, President Obama's second nominee to the Supreme Court, joined Justice Alito's concurrence. And what they basically said is, let's not place too much importance on the word, minister, in the ministerial exception because, after all, there are no ministers in synagogues in the Jewish religion. There are no ministers specifically in, you know, Islam.

So let's make clear that you don't have to be a minister going forward to be bound by this. So, in a way, Justice Kagan may have even gone a little further than the Chief Justice, the more conservative Chief Justice, went.

MARTIN: And pointing out - Justice Alito added that the concept of ordination should not be at the center of the analysis because...

RODRIGUEZ: Right.

MARTIN: ...when that kind of sacramental authority is conferred in different ways...

RODRIGUEZ: Right.

MARTIN: ...and according to different faith traditions. Should we read anything into the fact that Justice Kagan joined Justice Alito in this decision, or specifically, to write a concurring opinion?

RODRIGUEZ: What struck me was that, A, she joined, you know, a concurrence by one of the most conservative justices on the Court and, B, seems to want to take great care in saying, it's not just Christian ministers, right? It would be a whole body of religious leaders who are covered and they may be called different things, perhaps even at different times.

I thought that was interesting. I don't know that I would read way too much into it in terms of, you know, the jurisprudence, but I thought it was interesting that she wanted to be perfectly clear, that more than just the Christian, you know, religion and Christian ministers and those who are ordained, would be covered by this.

MARTIN: Eva Rodriguez is an editorial writer with the Washington Post who specializes in legal affairs and, as we said, she's a former editor-in-chief of Legal Times and she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Eva, thanks so much for joining us once again.

RODRIGUEZ: Thanks for having me.

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