Last Wednesday the US Supreme Court gave what many are calling the most significant Ruling on religious liberty in twenty years. I wrote a post outlining the decision for the Newfrontiers Theology blog, then edited it up with more of my opinions in for Theos. I was intending just to post the latter here, but on Saturday I heard about a ruling in a similar test case in the UK, so- at the risk of sounding like a technology company who brings out an upgrade to every product 10 minutes after you’ve bought it – here’s My Post, Version 3.0…
When conflicting human rights collide, which should take precedence?
This is one of the most fraught questions in the West today, with employment law often serving on its frontline. A recent, unanimous ruling by the US Supreme Court is being heralded as a major step forward in clarifying some of the most key issues.
In 2004, Cheryl Perich, a teacher at a Lutheran Church and Elementary school in Michigan, went on leave suffering from a form of narcolepsy, a disorder characterized by sudden and uncontrollable, though often brief, attacks of deep sleep.
When she was ready to return, she found that the church intended to offer what it called a “peaceful release” from her call. Ms Perich refused to resign and threatened to sue the organisation if she was fired. The church then said that her threat to sue constituted “insubordination and disruptive behavior”, and fired her.
This would normally have been in direct contravention of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but this Act applies to all employees except, importantly, those who are employed as religious ministers; hence the church’s action.
Perich’s lawyers, however, argued that she wasn’t enough of a ‘minster’ to fall under this ministerial exception and so her dismissal was unlawful. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
The case didn’t stop there, however, but moved, eventually, to the Supreme Court, which thought differently. In his decision (the full text of which can be read here) Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote:
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.
There will doubtless be much discussion around whether or not Ms Perich was acting as a minister when only 45 minutes of her average 7-hour working day was devoted to religious duties. It also seems likely that further clarification will be sought on who can be employed as a minister, thereby effectively bypassing discrimination laws.
Such considerations aside, however, the decision is significant. In the words of Kim Colby, senior counsel for the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom:
This decision should help religious groups that are being charged with ‘religious discrimination’ when they require their leaders to agree with their statement of faith … In a conflict between nondiscrimination laws and religious liberty, religious liberty prevailed. Nondiscrimination laws serve vital and good purposes in our society. But they have been increasingly misused to harm religious liberty in a number of contexts over the past decade.
Some are calling this the most important Supreme Court Ruling on religion in 20 years and though it has some features which are unique to the USA (the Chief Justice referred specifically to provisions in the First Amendment to the US Constitution), its implications are sure to be weighed and considered on this side of the Atlantic. Would European Courts be as favourable to the exercise of religion? Should they?
On Saturday I became aware of this post from last December concerning an unfair dismissal case in the UK. In this instance, the employer was The Methodist Church and the employee Reverend Haley Preston. Details of the case are not given in the report, but the key point is that Preston is claiming unfair dismissal having been “put under unfair pressure to resign from her job as a minister.”
The Court of Appeals has given her leave to proceed with her claim, rejecting claims by the church that she was working in the service of God, rather than being employed by a company:
Lord Justice Maurice Kay said whatever the stance of the Church, “it surely does not embrace a doctrinal belief that a minister who is treated with unfairness or discrimination must be denied common legal redress”.
Many in the US rejoiced last week at the freedom granted by the ruling in the Perich case to religious organisations. Many in the UK will be overjoyed at the protection offered to ministers in the Preston one.
It is the cultural norm – perhaps even the cultural requirement – in the West to demand our rights and seek to shape the law around what we perceive to be our own good, and those perceptions are notoriously different from person to person.
I was reminded twice today, though, that Christians are commanded to – are offered – a higher standard.
Justice is a key theme in the teaching of the Kingdom of God. The world can be full of ‘me and my rights’, ‘my beliefs’… Jesus was counter-cultural in His day… He gave all he had, even to death on the Cross, for others… This puts ‘my rights’ into a rather different context.
And in an email about one of the earlier versions of this article, my mum wrote:
All I know is that Paul says in Corinthians – “If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases?….The very fact you have lawsuits among you shows you are completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?”
Christians should prefer to be wronged than to be given their rights. We should be willing to lose everything for the sake of someone who hates us and persecutes us.
[O]ur attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing… (Phil 2)
If that were to be our standard, the protection of or freedom from the law would be irrelevant to us, we would neither seek it nor avail ourselves of it were it available. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the papers started reporting stories of people threatened with being fired who turned the other cheek and loved those who persecuted? Wouldn’t it be great if employers started treating difficult employees with love and compassion? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful new song to sing over our culture?
Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when He said:
By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.