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Disappointment: Supreme Court Allows Religious Groups to Discriminate

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Americans United for Separation of Church and State today expressed disappointment over a Supreme Court decision that affirms the right of religious groups to ignore anti-discrimination laws in some cases.

The high court today handed down a ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The case dealt with a Michigan religious school that fired a teacher because of a medical condition.

“Blatant discrimination is a social evil we have worked hard to eradicate in the United States,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “I’m afraid the court’s ruling today will make it harder to combat.” 

Americans United had filed a friend-of-the-court brief noting that religious organizations have long had the right to limit employment to people who share their theology when those employees have clear religious duties – a concept known as the “ministerial exception.” But, AU asserted, some courts have taken this concept too far.

Today’s decision, AU says, reinforces that unfortunate trend. 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.

“Clergy who are fired for reasons unrelated to matters of theology – no matter how capricious or venal those reasons may be – have just had the courthouse door slammed in their faces,” Lynn said.

The AU brief urged the Supreme Court not to deny judicial access to Americans who face discrimination by religious groups for reasons unrelated to theology. (Other organizations signing the brief are the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, the ACLU of Michigan, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Sikh Council on Religion and Education and the Unitarian Universalist Association.)


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