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Supreme Court upholds religious freedom

McClatchy-Tribune News Service –

In a case involving a teacher fired by an Evangelical Lutheran school in Michigan, President Obama’s Justice Department climbed way out on a limb in arguing that the teacher could sue for the loss of her job. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court took a sharp saw to that branch.

It’s not every day that you find this court reaching a unanimous verdict, with liberals and conservatives in agreement. It’s not every day that the notably liberal Justice Elena Kagan signs onto an opinion by the famously conservative Samuel Alito. But that’s what happened this time.

In her job at the school, Cheryl Perich taught secular subjects like math and social studies, but as a “called teacher,” she also taught religion classes and led students in prayers. After she came down with an illness that required her to take a medical leave, the school declined to take her back. She responded by filing a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming illegal discrimination.

A federal district court rejected the claim. It said that because of her religious duties, she was covered by the long-recognized “ministerial exception” — which says the government may not interfere in the relationship between churches and their clergy. An appeals court agreed on the exception, but said Perich wasn’t covered because she wasn’t a minister.

When the case was argued before the Supreme Court, the Obama administration took an extreme position: that under federal employment law, religious institutions should be treated no differently from ordinary businesses. Noting the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty, Justice Antonin Scalia called that argument “extraordinary,” and Kagan pronounced it “amazing.”

Apparently their seven colleagues agreed. “We cannot accept the remarkable view that the religion clauses (of the First Amendment) have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts. The court said Perich was the equivalent of a minister because she had taught religion and had gotten training that earned her the title of “Minister of Religion, Commissioned.”

In his concurring opinion, Alito put the point succinctly: “The Constitution leaves it to the collective conscience of each religious group to determine for itself who is qualified to serve as a teacher or messenger of its faith.” Under the administration’s logic, he noted, there would be no obvious reason to prevent women from suing the Catholic church for sex discrimination because it bars them from the priesthood.

In this decision, the court struck a crucial blow for the rights of conscience. If the First Amendment means anything, it means religious institutions must be allowed to decide whom they entrust with propagating the word of God. In that sacred realm, the only place for government is out of the way.

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