There is another Church-State case before the Supreme Court. It pits a fired teacher against her former employer, a Lutheran School. She says that she was unfairly fired for a disability and has sued. They say, she's a minister, and therefore not subject to such protections. The question before the Court is, in part, what is a minister? And, in that regard, how do you separate out secular and sacred duties? Martin Marty weighs in, suggesting that the issue is "complicated." What do you think? Specifically,, how will a decision either way effect religious congregations and their ministries?
A Lutheran School
-- Martin E. Marty
In my sixty-two happy years in Exile or in the Promised Land away from the capital, I have found almost daily reasons to revise my vision, for one main reason. The Court cases that fell into my scholarly zone and aroused my citizen passions had to do with religion, coded as “Church and State.” And in that zone it became apparent that all cases which reach the Supremes are extremely difficult and, in some ways, insoluble, but they must be adjudicated. For most of us in this zone, two conflicting interests or demands almost always surface. On one hand, we want to see constitutional safeguards which assure religious freedom defended and enhanced. On the other, we need to see that justice be done, especially in religious controversies which impinge on the civil order.
All those concerns surface each autumn when the Court agenda gets prefigured and each late spring when the decisions show once again that conflicting interests cannot all be addressed or cases decided to the satisfaction of half the citizens and even to both sides of the brains of each. Try this year’s puzzler; Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, a case originating in Michigan. There a church school board fired Cheryl, a “commissioned minister” who, with that title was vulnerable for dismissal, which would not have been so ready an instrument for the employing school were she a “called” teacher. Such, in the complex terms and hunches of the church body in question, would have been a protection against such dismissal. She has sued. Enter the EEOC
When I said, “it’s complicated,” I meant it’s really complicated, as all these cases are. Notable constitutional and Court scholar Michael W. McConnell sided simply with the church which sponsors the school, with a Wall Street Journal editorial, headlined somewhat polemically, “Washington Wants a Say Over Your Minister.” Should it be put that way? Well, “it’s complicated.”
In the half year ahead citizens will have plenty of opportunity to read contradictory testimonies on many aspects of the case. Already, interested parties are on hand trying to determine what percentage of her time did Ms. Perich devote herself to “secular” subjects and what to “sacred” or religious ones. Further complicating things: get Lutherans to define Lutheranly what is “secular” and what is “sacred.” And then, dear Court, decide how much is too much or too little, on either side. Oh, to complicate things, work your way through the plot to find out what such Lutherans mean by “ministers” to get this case adjudicated with the now-traditional “ministerial exception” in view. One could pursue the issues and find that almost all reflect ambiguities and apparently mutually contradictory elements. Yet justice should be done, or aspired to.
So why follow the case, if we have little more to observe and say than “it’s complicated”? In a time of extremism, of over-simplification and noise among the polarized leaders, participants, and commentators, an awareness of complexity may be helpful. Hosanna to Hosanna-Tabor for forcing this not-simple exercise on citizens.
Michael W. McConnell, “Washington Wants a Say Over Your Minister,” Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2011.
Mike Sacks, “Supreme Court Asked To Exempt Churches From Employee Discrimination Lawsuits,” Huffington Post, October 5, 2011.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
The Religion & Culture Web Forum presents The Future of Muslim Family Law in Western Democracies by John Witte, Jr. "How should Muslims and other religious minorities with distinctive family norms and cultural practices be accommodated in a society dedicated to religious liberty and self-determination, and to religious equality and non-discrimination?" In this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum, John Witte, Jr., a distinguished scholar of legal history and religious liberty, analyzes arguments for the establishment of Shari'a courts within Western democracies. Drawing on the historical experiences of Jewish and Christian communities in the West, Witte also discusses the ways in which state accommodation must be met by accommodation on the part of religious groups.