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Jewish Leaders Applaud Supreme Court Ruling Reaffirming Separation of Church and State

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Secular Courts Cannot Interfere in Employment Disputes Within Religious Schools and Congregations

Prominent national Jewish organizations, including the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel, applauded last week a ruling issued by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court finding that a church school cannot be sued in secular court over the dismissal of a religious teacher.

In the case of Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Church v. EEOC, the high court’s unanimous decision today overturned an earlier ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Courts normally have ruled the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion shields churches and their operations from the reach of anti-discrimination laws when dealing with employees of religious institutions.

The case, Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, involved a teacher who sued the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich. for discrimination after the school refused to reinstate her after a leave of absence.

In the unanimous decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court said: “the freedom to select the clergy…is part of the free exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment against government interference.”  “According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.”  Moreover, the Court found “untenable” the position advocated by the EEOC – that there was no need for a “special rule…grounded in the Religion Clauses themselves” governing the employment decisions related to clergy, and the Court applied that rule to cases such as this, where the dismissed employee not only had the title of “minister” but whose functions including teaching religious classes.

The Orthodox Union participated in this important case by joining a “friend of the court” brief submitted on behalf of the Union together with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Mormon Church and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. The court brief was principally drafted by Mr. Kevin Baine of the Williams and Connolly law firm. 

Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s director of public policy applauded the decision, saying “In its unanimous ruling today, the Supreme Court upheld fundamental principles of religious freedom in the United States.  The Court ensured that religious communities may form houses of worship, parochial schools and other institutions whose missions are to be places of worship, learning and service for a faith community and that such institutions are constitutionally protected from interference by the secular state.” 

Reflecting a similar sentiment, Agudath Israel’s Vice President for Federal Government Affairs and Washington Director, Rabbi Abba Cohen, announced that the Supreme Court “has bolstered a fundamental principle of religious liberty in ruling today that religious employers have the sole authority to hire and fire employees who “minister to the faithful.”

“By preserving the autonomy of religious doctrine and the religious institutions that live by that doctrine,” said Cohen, “the Court has struck a strong blow for the vitality of religious freedom in our nation.”

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