WASHINGTON â€” In what may be its most significantÂ religious liberty decisionÂ in two decades, theÂ Supreme CourtÂ on Wednesday for the first time recognized a â€œministerial exceptionâ€ to employment discrimination laws, saying that churches and other religious groups must be free to choose and dismiss their leaders without government interference.
â€œThe interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,â€ Chief JusticeÂ John G. Roberts Jr.Â wrote in a decision that was surprising in both its sweep and its unanimity. â€œBut so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.â€
The decision gave only limited guidance about how courts should decide who counts as a minister, saying the court was â€œreluctant to adopt a rigid formula.â€ Two concurring opinions offered contrasting proposals.
Whatever its precise scope, the ruling will have concrete consequences for countless people employed by religious groups to perform religious work. In addition to ministers, priests, rabbis and other religious leaders, the decision appears to encompass, for instance, at least those teachers in religious schools with formal religious training who are charged with instructing students about religious matters.
Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia who argued the case on behalf of the defendant, a Lutheran school, said the upshot of the ruling was likely to be that â€œsubstantial religious instruction is going to be enough.â€
Asked about professors at Catholic universities like Notre Dame, Professor Laycock said: â€œIf he teaches theology, heâ€™s covered. If he teaches English or physics or some clearly secular subjects, he is clearly not covered.â€
The case,Â Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, No. 10-553, was brought by Cheryl Perich, who had been a teacher at a school in Redford, Mich., that was part of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the second-largest Lutheran denomination in the United States. Ms. Perich said she was fired for pursuing an employment discrimination claim based on a disability, narcolepsy.