Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Supreme Court Hands Down Landmark Religious Liberty Ruling: America and National Catholic Reporter Comment

Reporting on today's Supreme Court decision upholding the religious liberty of churches and their right to enjoy a "ministerial exception" to laws protecting citizens from discrimination in non-ministerial jobs, Kevin Clarke notes that the U.S. bishops are "more than pleased."  He also notes,

The court's decision will make it virtually impossible for ministers to take on their employers for being fired for complaining about issues like sexual harassment.

Writing at National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters characterizes the Supreme Court decision as a "big win"--though he doesn't specify who is the winner and what the battle is.

The Supreme Court ruling is broad enough that it conceivably provides religious groups and the institutions they sponsor the unrestricted "right" to fire those teaching religion--e.g., theologians in Catholic colleges or universities--without any correlative right on the part of teachers of religion to claim legal protection from discrimination in such firings.  The decision is written to affirm the "freedom" of religious groups to decide who may represent them in official ministerial positions that include the ministry of teaching what the religion holds.

And so the decision potentially provides religious groups and their institutions the right to to refuse to hire or to fire a minister or theologian without legal penalties for violating discrimination laws because the minister is, say

1. Black, when the religious group believes that white supremacy is divinely ordained, 
2. Female, when the religious group holds that only man can represent it in official ministry, 
3. Gay, when the religious group imagines that those who are gay cannot adequately represent the group in an official capacity as ministers or teachers of the group's doctrines.

And, well, you get the picture.

For my part, I certainly think that religious bodies deserve the right to define who represents them in official ministry.  I'm less inclined, however, to regard a decision like today's as an unmitigated positive for religious bodies, since it has the potential to place these groups on the side of discrimination--with legal sanction for their discrimination.  A number of commentators to the NCR thread developing in response to Winters' statements are already pointing this out.

And the history of all religious bodies abundantly illustrates the strong capacity of religious groups to uphold and practice raw discrimination that they often have to begin questioning and rejecting only when legal strictures force such questioning and that rejection.  It would presuppose a very sanitized and naive understanding of the history of religious bodies--the Catholic church included--for one to imagine that giving religious groups an unchecked "right" to discriminate in the name of "religious liberty" is without serious danger.  

And that danger cuts against not only those susceptible to the discrimination they practice in the name of God.  It cuts against core values of many religious groups, corrupting them as they enshrine it in their hiring and firing processes for ministers and, it appears from today's ruling, those who teach the religion's core beliefs.

And so I conclude that, of the two preceding statements about today's SCOTUS decision, one of the two is measured and the thoughtful.

And the other of the two might as well have been written by a paid media spin-doctor of the USCCB who displays about as much insight, conscience, and integrity as the reverend gentlemen for whom he's doing the media spin-doctoring.

I'll leave it to you to work out which judgment applies to which of the two gentlemen commenting today about the Supreme Court decision at major Catholic publications.

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