Supreme Court allows religious exception in employment law

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday for the first time recognized a “ministerial exception” to federal laws that bar discrimination in the workplace.

In a unanimous decision, the court said the First Amendment prevents the government from interfering in the "internal governance" of religious groups. That means churches can discriminate against their own "ministers" in employment matters.

"Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the court. "Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs."

The opinion discussed Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, a Supreme Court decision from 1990. In that case, the justices allowed the state of Oregon to bar unemployment benefits to members of the Native American Church who were fired for ingesting peyote, a hallucinogen.

But Roberts drew a distinction between the cases. "Smith involved government regulation of only outward physical acts," he wrote. "The present case, in contrast, concerns government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself."

Get the Story:
Supreme Court: Discrimination laws do not protect certain employees of religious groups (The Washington Post 1/12)
Religious Groups Given ‘Exception’ to Work Bias Law (The New York Times 1/12)

Supreme Court Decision:
Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (January 11, 2012)

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