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TheoCon Confusion Over the First Amendment

Ah, the confusion that reigns when folks talk about church and state . . . SCOTUS rules in favor of religious freedom on one day, and the next day — the very next day! — religious conservatives come out screaming about the threat to religious freedom.

No one could have anticipated . . .


Earlier this week, the Supreme Court ruled on the case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v EEOC, in which a “called teacher” of the church’s school was fired. The teacher (and EEOC) claimed it was because of alleged medical issues — a reason that would not be allowed under anti-discrimination laws. The church disagreed, saying that the principal and the teacher disagreed on whether she was fit to return, and it got to a point where the teacher said “Fine, I’ll get the courts to enforce my views.” According to the church, going to the courts without first attempting to resolve them within the denomination’s structures is where she went against the teaching of the congregation’s denomination (the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) and is what made her unfit to serve as a “called teacher.”

[I put the phrase “called teacher” in quotation marks, because it is a specific theological term central to the discussion. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod makes a big, big theological distinction between “lay teachers” and “called teachers” and it has nothing to do with what subjects you teach. The idea is that as a called teacher, you are a religious leader with expertise in your particular subject area. You have religious training and official certification of your theological qualifications by the LCMS. You are an official representative to your students and to the community of the congregation and the LCMS. But back to the case at hand . . .]

Chief Justice Roberts framed the issue at hand in the very first paragraph of the opinion of the court in this unanimous case [pdf, p. 6]:

Certain employment discrimination laws authorize employees who have been wrongfully terminated to sue their employers for reinstatement and damages. The question presented is whether the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar such an action when the employer is a religious group and the employee is one of the group’s ministers.

Period. It’s not about whether religious organizations can ignore any law they don’t like. It’s not about whether employees in religious organizations have rights and protections. First and foremost, this case is about who gets to choose who is a leader in a religious organization: the group, or the government. SCOTUS unanimously — and unsurprisingly — said “the group.”

Imagine the alternative: six Roman Catholics and three Jews deciding who gets to be called a Lutheran minister.

Near the end [pdf p. 26], SCOTUS reaffirmed the limits of this case:

The case before us is an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church’s decision to fire her. Today we hold only that the ministerial exception bars such a suit.

In the 2012 elections, discussions about the relationship of religious groups and the state are taking an increasingly large role. On Thursday, an open “defense of marriage” letter signed by dozens of conservative religious leaders (including Catholics, Mormons, and Baptists, among others) was released, saying:

. . . we believe the most urgent peril [to religious freedom] is this: forcing or pressuring both individuals and religious organizations—throughout their operations, well beyond religious ceremonies—to treat same-sex sexual conduct as the moral equivalent of marital sexual conduct. There is no doubt that the many people and groups whose moral and religious convictions forbid same-sex sexual conduct will resist the compulsion of the law, and church-state conflicts will result.

In the USCCB press release accompanying the letter, USCCB president (and Cardinal-designate) Timothy Dolan said “Marriage and religious liberty are at a crisis point in the United States. . .  The letter makes a compelling argument that needs to be heard by all of us, especially those in positions of authority: anyone truly concerned with religious freedom must also be a defender of marriage’s perennial definition.”

Sorry, Cardinal-designate, but I’m truly concerned with religious freedom, and I disagree 100% with your narrow view of marriage.

As Hosanna-Tabor v EEOC makes clear, religious freedom is alive and well in the US. But what Dolan and Co. are concerned about isn’t their religious freedom, but their freedom to hide behind religion in order to discriminate more broadly in society.

The USCCB hailed the unanimous decision in Hosanna-Tabor, but don’t expect that to slow down the conservative religious attacks on marriage equality and women’s reproductive rights.

photo h/t to elPadawan

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.