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Focus on the Court: The Wall between Church and State

Focus on the Court: The Wall between Church and State

courtdaylogo.pngOn October 5, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The issue at hand is whether a teacher at a private religious elementary school who teaches the full secular curriculum but also leads students in prayer and teaches religion class qualifies for the "ministerial exception," which exempts certain religious institutions from federal laws prohibiting workplace discrimination. Like most cases that come before the Supreme Court, this one has many complicating factors. The most notable question that arises when considering both sides of the case is: Is it the responsibility of the government to decide who is a minister and who is not in a religious denomination? A "yes" answer would seemingly violate the wall between church and state called for by Thomas Jefferson, established by the Bill of Rights and upheld by the courts. On the other hand, someone needs to define ground rules for the use of the ministerial exception; otherwise religious institutions could end up being allowed to discriminate against employees who are not performing religious functions--and permitting such discrimination is not in keeping with America's commitment to ensuring civil rights.

The Union for Reform Judaism and the American Jewish Committee filed an amicus brief in favor of the petitioner, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School. The Reform Movement places a high value on religious freedom and strongly believes in the ministerial exception, which has been upheld by 12 of the 13 United States Circuit Courts of Appeals. As the brief states, the Reform Movement believes the Supreme Court "should make clear that the proper approach for determining who is 'ministerial' for purposes of the ministerial exception must be holistic, objectively examining the nature of the position and the particular employee's function within the religious organization." Such an approach stands in contrast to the one taken by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard this case before it reached the Supreme Court and used a purely quantitative test to determine whether the teacher qualified for the ministerial exception based on exactly how many minutes she spent on religious instruction versus secular instruction.

For an informative and easy-to-understand recap of oral arguments, read this blog entry from SCOTUSblog, a blog focused solely on the Supreme Court and the cases which come before the Court.

A decision is expected in the Hosanna-Tabor case later this year. Keep checking RACblog for updates on this and other important Supreme Court cases.

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