Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for a unanimous court swatted away the government’s claim that the Lutheran Church did not have the right to fire a “minister of religion” who, after six years of Lutheran religious training had been commissioned as a minister, upon election by her congregation.
The fired minister -- who also taught secular subjects -- claimed discrimination in employment. The Obama administration, always looking for opportunities to undermine the bedrock of First Amendment religious liberty, eagerly agreed.
There was just one big problem standing in the way of the government's plan: the U.S. Constitution. For a long time American courts have recognized the existence of a "ministerial exemption" which keeps government’s hands off the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers or clergy.
Here, in this case, the Department of Justice had the nerve to not only challenge the exemption’s application but also its very existence.
But, Chief Justice Roberts pushed back hard, telling the government essentially to butt out:
“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. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the establishment clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.”
Citing well-known legal precedent dating as far back as Reconstruction, the court made it clear that it is not up to the government to contradict a faith’s determination as to who should -- and should not -- be performing religious functions.
The Supreme Court clearly announced Wednesday that the First Amendment itself gives special recognition to the rights of religious organizations and rejected the government’s view that the Religion Clauses of the Constitution don’t apply to religious organizations’ freedom to select their own ministers, priests, rabbis and imams.
The Court also took aim at Plaintiff’s Cheryl Perich’s claims for back pay finding that such relief would operate as an unconstitutional penalty against a religious institution for terminating an unwanted minister and exercising its constitutional right to make decisions about internal church governance. Unfortunately, the federal government has become expert in imposing penalties for practicing one’s faith.
As the new year rolls on, Americans face even greater issues in their desire to retain their religious freedom. The mandates of ObamaCare -- with its narrowly tailored if not measly conscience exemptions protecting some religious orders from compliance -- will mandate thousands of other religious organizations ranging from educational institutions to insurance companies to insure and/or provide procedures like free sterilization and abortifacients like Plan B known to be violative of many Christians and Jewish faiths.
Will the government continue to test the bounds of religious liberty?
Will the government continue to pick fights against religious freedom?
Will the government continue to demand that Americans violate their faith tenets or worse from an intolerant government? Only time will tell.
But for today, the founding fathers are smiling down at a Supreme Court that could not agree more about how wrong-headed our government is in trying to hijack our constitutional right to religious liberty.
Peter Johnson, Jr. is a Fox News Legal Analyst and attorney.He has also successfully litigated issues with regard to the rights of religious organizations.
Peter Johnson Jr. is a successful and prominent appellate and trial lawyer who has been tapped for leadership positions by a historic New York City mayor and by Democratic and Republican governors. A graduate of Columbia University's School of Law and the recipient of Martindale Hubbell's highest rating for lawyers, he has been an outspoken and eloquent analyst for the FOX News Channel (FNC) on law, public policy, media and culture for the last 15 years.