High court: Religions are free to be jerks

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously and resoundingly today to affirm the principle of a "ministerial exception" that protects religious institutions from complying with anti-discrimination laws. (We discussed the case here before.)The ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC is clearly the right one (and it seems to leave some definitions and distinctions to a future ruling, which would be appropriate, I think). Conservatives in particular are high-fiving what they consider a great victory over impending tyranny.I'm not sure why the celebrations. As far as I could tell, the case was mainly an effort to allow religious groups to act against their religious teachings but still enjoy the protections of religious freedom. And that's a hill to die on? I'm sure many will be won to Christ because churches "like to fire people," as someone once said.Moreover, this pulls a leg out from the argument that under the Obama administration the United States is just this side of North Korea when it comes to protecting religious freedom. I mean, even those Obama appointees sided with the religious freedom advocates. I hate when that happens. Especially in an election year!But there are some thoughtful reactions from a number of supporters of the decision, as recounted in this NYT story:

Even those who agreed with the unanimous court and who have argued all along that the First Amendment provides an exception that lets churches, synagogues and other religious institutions hire and fire ministers and other religious leaders without government interference can be heard cautioning the churches not to abuse that right.Writing on the Web site of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which had filed a brief urging the court to affirm the ministerial exception, Don Byrd, a blogger who teaches at a Christian university, said, This particular case though can be a difficult one to think about for those of us who stand firmly against employment discrimination.Mr. Byrd, a music theory teacher at Belmont University in Nashville, said in an interview that he had found misgivings among fellow faculty members over the perception that religious liberty might be used to cloak discrimination.It would be a mistake for people of faith to celebrate in a way that misses that issue, said Mr. Byrd, who had spelled out his views in some detail before the Court handed down its decision.The freedom to make certain employment decisions without government interference leaves intact the moral obligation to act honorably, to treat employees honestly, and to make religious decisions based upon true religious beliefs, Mr. Byrd wrote. Support for a broad definition of the ministerial exception should not imply support for a broad license to discriminate with impunity.

Wise words, it seems to me. But how can churches be held to account? This is a real difficulty, given that religious institutions behave just as badly as secular groups, and often worse. And that truly does hurt the witness of religious communities.

David Gibson is the director of Fordham’s Center on Religion & Culture.

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