Good news from the Supreme Court today, with a unanimous (but by no means sweeping) ruling upholding the rights of religious groups to hire and fire their ministers. Over at Bench Memos, Rick Garnett pops champagne:
Sometimes the news from 1 First Street is really, really good. Today, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in what some observers (ahem) had called one of the most important church-state decisions in decades. Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion in Hosanna-Tabor Church v. EEOC vindicates clearly and strongly a crucial constitutional principle: The First Amendment protects religious liberty by forbidding governments from second-guessing religious communities’ decisions about who should be their teachers, leaders, and ministers. The chief justice’s opinion for the Court is well-reasoned, welcome, and correct. Indeed, I think it is one of his best yet.
Ed Whelan hails the “major victory” and draws attention to the next issue: who qualifies as a minister and who doesn’t?
In one concurring opinion, Justice Thomas expresses his view that courts should “defer to a religious organization’s good-faith understanding of who qualifies as a minister.” In a second concurrence, Justice Alito, joined by Justice Kagan, calls for the inquiry to “focus on the function performed by persons who work for religious bodies,” rather than on whether a religious organization uses the term “minister” or has a concept of ordination.
An embarrassing setback for the Obama administration, whose breathtaking stance on religious liberty now has been rejected (at least in part) even by its own handpicked justices. As you prepare to read the inevitable denunciations of the Court as conservative and out-of-step, keep in mind that not a single judge accepted the administration’s argument. The Obama White House’s view on religious liberty now have been shown to lie outside even the liberal mainstream. It’s all a far cry from the sympathetic engagement he promised to religious Americans during the 2008 campaign.