This Week in God

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.