The United States Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a ruling on two cases involving Catholic schools and their right to choose their own teachers without government interference.
The cases turned on the so-called “ministerial exemption,” based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids the government from interfering in employment decisions of religious groups.
In the majority opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the court ruled that religious education “is vital to many faiths,” and that in the cases before the Court, it was evident that the teachers involved “performed vital religious duties.”
The Court overturned earlier decisions by an Appeals court that interpreted the ministerial exemption narrowly, ruling that “judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”
The ruling drew a dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayer, who argued that Wednesday’s decision would mean that teachers in religious schools could be fired “for any reason.”
She also warned that the decision could affect numerous other classes of people, including coaches, nurses or social service workers, who are employed by religious institutions.
The Supreme Court’s ruling was welcomed by the U.S. Bishops. Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, the chair of the Bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty; and Bishop Michael Barber, SJ, the chair of the Catholic Education Committee, said in a statement that the decision “rightly acknowledged” that “the government has no authority to second-guess” ministerial decisions.
They emphasize, “Education is a central aspect of the Church’s mission. Indeed, teaching is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy.” Catholic schools, they say, “have a right, recognized by the constitution, to select people who will perform ministry.”
Wednesday’s decision, the Bishops say, “means that the Church can continue to serve her neighbors with integrity.”