Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

January 17, 2012

Update on Religious Liberty: The Supreme Court Upholds “Ministerial Exception”

Perhaps you have told your students that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently created an Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. In his testimony before the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Chairman, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, CT cited several reasons why the bishops’ conference assembled this committee.

  1. In August 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued regulations that mandate the coverage of contraception and sterilization in almost all private health insurance plans.

  2. In May 2011, HHS added a new requirement for government contracts for services to victims of human trafficking and unaccompanied minor refugees. This prevented the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) from continued participation in the program because it cannot provide abortion and contraception, the new requirements.

  3. The State Department’s U.S. Agency for International Development has recently been requiring that contractors (such as Catholic Relief Services) distribute condoms and other forms of contraception in their relief and development programs.

  4. The federal Department of Justice (DOJ) has increased its attack of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), calling it an act of bigotry.

  5. The DOJ is undermining the “ministerial exception” through attacking it directly.

  6. At the state levels, “same-sex marriage” is threatening adoption and foster care administered by Catholic Charities and similar agencies.

Regarding the attack on ministerial exception, on January 11, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court Justices ruled unanimously in favor of the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church over the plaintiff who filed a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This is the first time that the Supreme Court has ruled on this First Amendment issue. “Ministerial exception” takes the courts out of intervening in employment matters when doing so would require them to assess the performance of religious employees who carry out religious functions such as preaching or leading worship.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote for the court, “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.” (Pew Forum)

The U.S. bishops see this as a victory for religious freedom though there remains much work to be done.

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