January 24, 2012

Answering to a Higher Court

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Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling changing the nature of anti-discrimination policies at religious institutions nationwide. Now, churches and other religious groups are free to hire and fire ministers of their religions without the usual considerations of governmental anti-discrimination laws.  The definition of who constitutes a minister is left very broad in Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s decision. While reading news reports of the document, I expected that this would not be the case.  In order to protect the ability of many employed by religious groups to allege discrimination, I would have expected an attempt at a more specific definition. Instead, Justice Roberts was reluctant to adopt any “rigid formula” and opinions written by other justices likewise left the issue unclear. Due to competing opinions on who constitutes a minister in a religious group, the ruling will almost certainly include any teachers of religious subjects who have received any kind of formal training, however minimal.  Additionally, less prominent officials can no longer definitely pursue claims of discrimination, since their superiors will have the upper hand.  In the case precipitating the ruling, Cheryl Perich alleged that she was fired from her job as a teacher in a Lutheran school after pursuing an employment discrimination claim stemming from her diagnosis of narcolepsy. Her school confirmed that it fired her for moving outside the Church’s jurisdiction when handling her case. This ruling, therefore, raises pretty significant questions about the special authority that faith groups have over those who lead congregations and communicate beliefs.Despite the fact that Perich taught mostly secular subjects, she had received some formal training from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the second largest Lutheran denomination in the country. The Church alleged that it considered her a minister and that it therefore had a First Amendment-protected right to dictate whether or not she continued her leadership position within the Church.  In other words, since the Church has a Constitutional right to practice religion, it should have no legal obligation to retain people who violate its teachings, administrative or otherwise. Since Perich questioned the rulings of the Church over its internal affairs, turning to the law instead, she was no longer representative of their authority and could be fired.  After reading over the unanimous ruling, one that contradicted the Obama administration’s support of Perich, I had mixed feelings. I appreciated the need for the Supreme Court to protect freedom of religion and the ability of religious groups to dictate the manner in which their beliefs are presented.  I also appreciated the fact that the ruling does not apply to those who hold non-religious positions within religious groups — for example, secretaries, teachers of secular subjects and so on. But the line for Perich was drawn very close; even Chief Justice Roberts conceded that it was unlikely that she spent more than 45 minutes of her average day engaged in religious undertakings.  The line was so close that for me it highlighted a potential danger of this ruling. While in his opinion Chief Justice Roberts noted that unsavory use of the ruling could be overridden in appropriate cases, where true discrimination was present, too many potential loopholes exist for me to feel totally at peace with the decision.Religious institutions often operate hierarchically like businesses, with more mature or long-term leaders dictating the routines and policies of subordinates. In cases of sexual harassment in any other business, an employee can feel comfortable bringing the case to justice without fear of losing a job permanently. In religious organizations now, however, this ruling could breed fear of bringing these cases to light.  Since a religious group now has the Supreme Court-protected right to dismiss ministers without government interference, it would be extremely difficult for someone to bring a successful case against a superior who harassed them. Indeed, even if a minister or teacher were to be successful in bringing a claim of sexual harassment, there is no legally-protected right to get a job back from the religious organization afterwards. While there could still be a claim of sexual harassment, a plaintiff is almost guaranteed to lose her or his job afterwards because there is no claim of discrimination.Another point of concern is for the safety of children. When fear of job retention could overcome reports of sexual harassment, so too could it overcome reports of child abuse in schools, an important area that this ruling could apply to. A teacher who witnesses child abuse in parochial or other religious schools should not have to worry about retaining employment if he or she goes to the legal authorities. Again, this is an important case where a claim can still be made, but anti-discrimination laws no longer apply to protect employees’ jobs.  Basically, while I do not entirely disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision, I think that it is incredibly important to consider the potential loopholes this ruling opens before allowing it to have repercussions. Simply because a person is ordained or officiating in some religious capacity does not mean that he or she behaves ethically. This ruling could therefore be used to protect behavior which is not in fact free exercise of religion.

Maggie Henry is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at mhenry@cornellsun.com. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Maggie Henry

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