If you’ve ever watched “Leave it to Beaver” re-reruns, you know that Beaver, the young star of the show, was always getting hassled by his older brother’s friend, Eddie Haskell. Eddie was the neighborhood smart-mouth. When the abuse became unbearable, the Beaver would say something like this, “Gee Dad, Eddie’s giving me the business again.”
That’s exactly what the Sixth Circuit did to a church’s religious school in the EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor case last year. It didn’t just give churches the business, it got the government involved in their business when it ruled the school could not fire one of its teachers for threatening to sue them. The teacher was a commissioned minister in the church and tasked with teaching church doctrine to students, not only by leading daily devotions, but also by infusing every subject with a biblical worldview. When she threatened to sue the religious school over an employment dispute, the church revoked her status as a minister and let her go. The church and its school observe the New Testament admonition that Christians should not bring their disputes before secular judges. (As I demonstrated in a recent blog,such suits among believers are not only unbiblical, they are foolish). More details on the Hosanna-Tabor case and a copy of the Sixth Circuit opinion are available here.
Courts have long kept out of employment decisions made by religious organizations regarding their ministers. The doctrine is called the “ministerial exception” and it’s rooted in the idea that a secular court isn’t equipped to review a spiritual decision by a religious organization regarding individuals charged with communicating theology to others. One of the clear reasons for the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause is to keep the government from entangling itself in church affairs. As Professor Carl Esbeck often says, “the government doesn’t establish religion by leaving it alone.” But the Sixth Circuit ignored these well-established principles when it determined that, even though the teacher was tasked with inculcating religious principles into students throughout the day, she also taught secular subjects like history and science. ”Everyone” knows a biblical worldview is not important in these types of subjects, and there are no religious principles to be learned!
The good news is the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review the Sixth Circuit’s decision this year. It will be the first time the Court has directly ruled on the ministerial exception, which is widely recognized by lower courts. This will likely have significant ramifications for all churches so please be in prayer for this case. ADF recently became involved in this case at the trial level, and one of our allies, the Beckett Fund, is representing the school before the U.S. Supreme Court. We will continue to work to help the Court come to a decision that protects religious freedom and keeps the government out of the business of churches.
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