WASHINGTON, DC, USA, January 11, 2012 (NYTImes): 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.”
Chief Justice Roberts devoted several pages of his opinion to a history of religious freedom in Britain and the United States, concluding that an animating principle behind the First Amendment’s religious liberty clauses was to prohibit government interference in the internal affairs of religious groups generally and in their selection of their leaders in particular.
“The Establishment Clause prevents the government from appointing ministers,” he wrote, “and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.”
The decision was a major victory for a broad range of national religious denominations that had warned that the case was a threat to their First Amendment rights and their autonomy to decide whom to hire and fire. Some religious leaders had said they considered it the most important religious freedom case to go to the Supreme Court in decades.