Lost in the muddled oral argument of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v EEOC was the case’s central question: Are religious groups entitled to disobey the law?
The contested issue in Hosanna-Tabor is whether Lutheran elementary schoolteacher Cheryl Perich can sue her former employer, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, for retaliation under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The school fired Perich after she threatened to report the school’s disabilities discrimination against her to the EEOC. The specific legal question is whether the ministerial exception, a court-created doctrine that holds that the First Amendment requires the dismissal of many employment discrimination cases against religious employers, applies to schoolteacher Perich because the church considers her to be a minister.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor identified the important legal issue early in the oral argument when she asked the church’s lawyer, University of Virginia Professor Douglas Laycock, “doesn’t society have a right at some point to say certain conduct is unacceptable, even if religious?” That is what the ministerial exception is all about: at what point do religious organizations have to obey the law?
Justice Sotomayor was concerned about “a church whose religious beliefs centered around sexually exploiting women and children,” which Laycock did not defend. But how can courts determine which laws must be obeyed and which may be flouted? In the past, lower courts have held that Baptist churches’ religious, Scripture-based belief that men are heads of households and therefore entitled to higher pay than women did not allow them to violate the equal pay laws; that the Shiloh True Light Church of Christ’s religious belief in children’s vocational training did not permit it to violate the child labor laws; and that the Quaker tradition of hospitality to the stranger did not allow Quakers to ignore the alien worker requirements of the immigration laws. Those cases focused on how strong the government’s interest was in enforcing the laws. The courts concluded that the government’s interest in enforcing the equal pay, child labor and immigration laws was strong enough to overcome important religious beliefs.