Last April, I commented on the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that properly upheld the right of churches to train and employ ministers without government interference. In Alcazar v. Corporation of the Archbishop of Seattle, the court held that a church can require its candidates for the priesthood to spend a year cleaning sinks if it wants to, and still qualify for the ministerial exception. Only a church can determine whether a seemingly secular activity will be a beneficial part of helping a pastor minister, and it should still be able to hire only those candidates for pastor that agree with the church’s religious beliefs.
But that ruling wasn’t the end of the story. One of the plaintiffs in the case, Cesar Rosas, appealed the ruling to a full (referred to as ”en banc”) panel of the Ninth Circuit. The original appeal, like most, was heard by three judges. But the en banc panel, consisting of 11 judges, issued an opinion in December confirming the ultimate holding by the original panel.
This en banc opinion, which has more precedential value than opinions from 3 judge panels, first confirmed the vitality of the ministerial exception to prohibitions on employment discrimination. It explained that “[t]he Free Exercise Clause rational for protecting a church’s personnel decisions concerning its ministers is the necessity of allowing the church to choose its representatives using whatever criteria it deems relevant. Indeed, the ministerial relationship lies so close to the heart of the church that it would offend the Free Exercise Clause simply to articulate a religious justification for its personnel decisions.”
Cesar Rosas complained that he should not fall within this exception because he was a priest in training who spent most of his time performing janitorial duties at the church. But the court rejected that argument, recognizing that “[a] church may well assign secular duties to an aspiring member of the clergy, either to promote a spiritual value (such as diligence, obedience, or compassion) or to promote its religious mission in some material way. The ministerial exception applies notwithstanding the assignment of some secular responsibilities.”
The Ninth Circuit is to be commended for getting this case right twice. Judges must continue to acknowledge the right of churches to only employ people who agree with their religious mission in order for religious freedom to thrive.
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