Political Animal


January 14, 2012 8:00 AM This Week in God

By Steve Benen

First up from the God Machine this week is an important Supreme Court ruling on employment discrimination and a “ministerial exception.”

In what may be its most significant religious liberty decision in two decades, the Supreme Court on Wednesday for the first time recognized a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws, saying that churches and other religious groups must be free to choose and dismiss their leaders without government interference.

“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in a decision that was surprising in both its sweep and its unanimity. “But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.”

The decision gave only limited guidance about how courts should decide who counts as a minister, saying the court was “reluctant to adopt a rigid formula.”

It was a unanimous, 9-0 ruling.

The case deals with a teacher at a Lutheran religious school in Michigan who lost her job due to her medical condition (narcolepsy). The teacher primarily taught secular subjects, but spent roughly 45 minutes a day on religious instruction.

And that’s where things get a little tricky. Ministries already had the ability to discriminate when it came to clergy and religious leaders; the question for the court was how far this “ministerial exception” could be applied.

The justices concluded that if a ministry’s employee — in this case, a teacher — is in any way involved in religious instruction, discrimination against that employee is permissible.

So, Notre Dame could ignore discrimination laws on a theology professor, but not a calculus professor.

My friends at Americans United for Separation of Church and State were not impressed: “Under the ruling, AU says, a house of worship would have the right to fire a minister for reasons completely unrelated to religion. A pastor who objected to being sexually harassed, for example, could be fired for raising that issue and have no recourse in the courts.”

Chief Justice John Roberts seemed aware of this problem, but punted on the problem, saying, “There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances, if and when they arise.”

Also from the God Machine this week:

* A federal appeals court made the obvious call: “Oklahoma’s referendum against state judges considering Islamic law is unconstitutional, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday (Jan. 10), upholding a lower court ruling that had blocked the measure. The ruling could affect more than 20 other states where laws against Shariah are under consideration.”

* Though I flubbed the date in a post last week, over 100 evangelical leaders and their spouses are scheduled to gather at a Texas ranch this weekend “to discuss the latest iteration of Operation What To Do About Mitt Romney.”

* Pope Benedict XVI said this week that marriage equality for same-sex couples is one of several threats that undermines “the future of humanity itself.” That’s deeply absurd.

* And a Pew Research Center survey found this week that only 56% of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints believe Americans are ready to elect a Mormon to the White House.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • c u n d gulag on January 14, 2012 8:08 AM:

    For once, I agree with the Roberts Court!

    I mean, churches should be allowed to hire whatever minstrel's they want, with no exceptions.

    And anyone who says otherwise is a lyre!

  • c u n d gulag on January 14, 2012 8:14 AM:

    Also too: If I were you, Pope Benny the Ratfaced, I'd be less concerned about same-sex couples undermining "the future of humanity," and more concerned that continued same-sex coupling between Priests and Alter Boys might undermine the future of your church.

    I think you might want to read that Bible thingy. Some guy named Jesus had a thing or two to say about not casting stones.
    But, then, what would some Messican carpenter know, right?

  • lou on January 14, 2012 8:24 AM:

    "And a Pew Research Center survey found this week that only 56% of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints believe Americans are ready to elect a Mormon to the White House."

    I'll prolly be flamed for discrimination on the basis of religion and for not being politically correct, but I do weigh someone's belief in a complete fabrications by a money digging con man just as much as I would, say, their non belief in evolution or global warming. In Romney's case, money digging didn't fall far from the tree. Head ducking and feints is just a part of their belief system as shaped by their all too human leadership.

  • Danp on January 14, 2012 8:26 AM:

    only 56% of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

    We elected a Quaker and have, what, six Catholics on the Supreme Court? Why wouldn't we vote for a Mormon with no core principles? If Huntsman spent more time screaming about Obama, he, too, might have had a good chance to win the nomination from the bigots' party.

  • DAY on January 14, 2012 8:38 AM:

    Whenever I feel a need for a religious experience, I go here, for some of Rev. George Carlin's sermons on the subject.


  • MonkeyBoy on January 14, 2012 8:44 AM:

    For a while I was interested in New Life Church in Colorado Springs (the mega church founded by Ted Haggard of meth and gay prostitute fame)

    As a negachurch not only does it provide religious services but it also houses a food court to calorifically nourish their members. In the past I've found on their website job announcements such as "part time short order cook" which when I read them seem illegal - they require a worker to be a member of NLC and tithe 10% of their pay back to the church. I also recall some language requiring acting in a Christian manner because the employee acts for the church to the public. If a food service employee is supposed to give a patron a "god bless you" along with each hamburger then I don't see any reason not to classify them as ministers and exempt them from being able to file discrimination suits on any nonreligious grounds such as health, beauty, race, age, etc.

  • Oh my on January 14, 2012 10:01 AM:

    Operation What To Do About Mitt Romney.

    Swallow hard and do what they always do. Vote for the guy the plutocrats tell them to vote for.

  • dj spellchecka on January 14, 2012 10:01 AM:

    in other "twig" news, troubling signs from nigeria

    The head of Nigeria's Christians said Saturday the killing of dozens of faithful in attacks blamed on Islamists suggested "ethnic and religious cleansing" reminiscent of the start of the 1960s civil war.

    Christians would "do whatever it takes" to defend themselves, Ayo Oritsejafor, head of the Christian Association of Nigeria, said after a meeting of church leaders.

    More than 30 worshippers have been shot dead in northeast Nigeria since Wednesday, many while praying in churches, after the expiration of an ultimatum by an Islamist sect for Christians to leave the country's mainly Muslim north.

    Oritsejafor said an emergency meeting of church heads concluded "that the pattern of these killings does suggest to us a systematic ethnic and religious cleansing."


  • dj spellchecka on January 14, 2012 10:03 AM:

    in other "twig" news

    egyptian christian on trail over mickey mouse cartoon

    One of Egypt's richest men is to face trial for blasphemy after tweeting cartoons of Mickey and Minnie Mouse wearing conservative Muslim attire.

    Telecoms mogul and Coptic Christian Naguib Sawiris re-posted the images on Twitter last June. He subsequently apologised, saying he meant no offence.

    But a formal complaint against him has now been referred to court.

    The tweeted images showed Mickey Mouse wearing a traditional Islamic robe with a full beard, while Minnie Mouse is wearing a niqab - a full-face veil - with just her eyes showing.

    She was identifiable by her large ears and trademark pink hair ribbon.

    Conservative Muslim groups called for boycotts of Mr Sawiris's companies, including mobile phone provider Mobinil.

    Mr Sawiris, whose father is the richest man in Egypt, is a champion of secularism and has spoken out against the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the country, including the increasing number of women wearing full-face veils.


  • dj spellchecka on January 14, 2012 10:05 AM:

    latest development in european catholic sex scandal

    Belgium's Catholic Church announced Thursday that priests and clergy who abused children will be required to pay damages, even when victims make their claims after the country's statute of limitations has expired.

    The church -- in an overall response on how to deal with the abuse scandals that have enveloped it -- urged victims to initially take their cases to civil authorities.

    But it also said it was willing to impose penalties ranging from apologies to financial compensation, both for recent cases and for those so old they can no longer be brought to court. Over the past two years, more than 500 witnesses have come forward with accounts of molestation by Catholic clergy in Belgium, spanning several decades.

    "If the culprit is still alive, he will certainly have to pay," Bishop Guy Harpigny said in an interview with The Associated Press.

    The culprits "may say civil authorities have told them the statute of limitations has expired, but we will say 'you have to pay,'" Harpigny said. "They have committed evil. They are responsible and we will try to make them pay."

    He added that if individual priests were unable to pay, the church itself would compensate. The Belgian church, however, has not offered any figures regarding potential compensation.


  • dj spellchecka on January 14, 2012 10:08 AM:

    some good news when ows and a church come together

    cbs atlanta

    Historic northwest Atlanta church gets last-minute reprieve from eviction
    Higher Ground Empowerment Center took out a big loan to cover damage from a tornado that blasted downtown Atlanta in 2008. Higher Ground's membership fell over the years, leaving it with less money to make payments. The church tried to refinance with BB&T, but the bank opened up foreclosure proceedings and threatened to evict the church in seven days if it did not come up with the money fast.

    Johnson refused to consider what would happen if the bank carried out its threat.

    "I believe our church is going to be here because it is a 108-year-old church," Johnson said. "We're not looking for a free ride."

    The church and the bank were scheduled to attend a hearing Thursday afternoon. Johnson called Occupy Atlanta on Wednesday and asked for help. Protestors moved in Thursday morning. Then, the church was the beneficiary of a minor miracle. BB&T later in the day, called off and agreed to negotiate with the bank.

    "We are working with the church on a resolution that will allow them to remain in the building," said a spokesman for BB&T.

    The church said Occupy Atlanta was the reason for the bank's change of mind.

    "They're going to work with us to come up with a new payment plan," Johnson said.


  • RepublicanPointOfView on January 14, 2012 10:38 AM:

    ...56% of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints believe Americans are ready to elect a Mormon to the White House.

    Once again, Steve Benen proves that he is out of the mainstream and a propagandist for the democrat party! The correct information that our corporately owned media is accurately letting the ameriKKKan sheeple know is that the members of the Mormon Church believe that ameriKKKans are ready to elect a Mormon to the White House!

  • JS on January 14, 2012 10:44 AM:

    Surely you mean..

    "What Do You Do About a Problem Like Mitt Romney"?

  • Arlington BigFish on January 14, 2012 10:54 AM:

    Steve, you overlooked this week's Virginia judge's ruling that Episcopal church real estate belongs to the Episcopal Church itself, and not the individual congregations. This is a big deal for those Northern Virginia churches (like The Falls Church) that have broken away from the larger body because they think the denomination has gotten too damn liberal.

  • dj spellchecka on January 14, 2012 1:20 PM:


    those 100 evangelical leaders and their wives voted to back the frothy mixture.....


  • Sid Schwab on January 14, 2012 2:10 PM:

    Then there's the Tim Tebow as god phenomenon, about which I wrote recently.

  • exlibra on January 14, 2012 2:10 PM:

    * Pope Benedict XVI said this week that marriage equality for same-sex couples is one of several threats that undermines “the future of humanity itself.” -- Steve Benen

    True, but only if *everybody* married a same-sex partner.

    "If you were the only man in the world
    And I was the only boy...
    Nothing much could happen in the world today;
    The population problem would be solved that way..."
    From: Miss Seeton Sings, by Heron Carvic

  • thebewilderness on January 14, 2012 3:22 PM:

    The Pope is exactly right. Nothing is as antithetical to the future of humanity, as envisioned by the Catholic Church, as respecting human rights and extending civil rights to all peoples.

  • Paul on January 15, 2012 6:02 AM:

    Equal marriage is a threat to humanity but a reproductive policy based on medieval superstition is not? You bet.