editorial: The Ministerial Exception

The New York Times, January 12, 2012

The Ministerial Exception

In the case of Cheryl Perich, a teacher fired by a church-run school, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom bars her from suing the church under federal workplace discrimination law.
Ms. Perich had gotten sick and missed a term of teaching. When the school asked her to resign, she refused and threatened to sue. The school fired her, saying church policy required that it resolve the dispute internally. She sued for retaliation.
For the first time, the court found that a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws applied to her as a church employee, who had “a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission.” In his opinion for the unanimous court, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. seems to minimize the scope of the ruling by avoiding “a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister” and by not saying how the exception would apply in other circumstances.
Although the court does not provide much guidance on how to proceed in future lawsuits against churches as employers, the ruling has broad sweep. It abandons the court’s longtime practice of balancing the interest in the free exercise of religion against important government interests, like protection against workplace bias or retaliation. With a balancing test, courts consider whether a general law, if applied to a religious institution, would inhibit its freedom more broadly than justified and, in those circumstances, courts could exempt the church.
In her brief, Ms. Perich warned that expanding the ministerial exception to include workers like her would allow a religious organization, for example, to retaliate against a teacher for reporting sexual abuse of a student to the government.
The chief justice dismissed that argument as one of an unwarranted “parade of horribles,” but his opinion provides no indication of how the teacher could fight back. While a footnote says the ministerial exception does not bar courts from considering cases like Ms. Perich’s, the exception’s categorical nature is powerful. The court rejected the plea of the government to include only those with “exclusively religious functions” and does not limit the exception to ministers, priests, rabbis or other religious leaders.
Ms. Perich spent most of her time teaching nonreligious subjects with about a sixth of her time on religion classes, so the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit concluded that she was not a ministerial worker and that she could sue. In overturning that decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the question could not be “resolved by a stopwatch” and that Ms. Perich’s limited teaching about religion helped qualify her as a minister.
The court’s conception of the ministerial role is more encompassing than it has been defined by state and federal appellate courts. Its sweeping deference to churches does not serve them or society wisely.

Bishop Beats Up On Baby Jesus

Once again Bishop McDonnell has beat up on Baby Jesus.

The news was conveyed by faithful messenger boy Mark Dupont, in a particularly hateful letter to the editor of the Springfield Republican.

It's more proof that the decision to name the warm n' fuzzy robo-magazine replacing the Observer "The Catholic Mirror" was a mistake. The true "Catholic Mirror" in the diocese is Mark Dupont: he clearly reflects the policies of Bishop McDonnell. The policies are flawed, but the reflection is perfect.

The letter is laced with extremes. On one side are the "legal",  "good", "quiet", "prayerful", parishioners of Holy Cross, who are "trying to make the best, not the worse" of the situation. These parishioners are the ones that have "legitimate rights".

According to this spin, the sudden appearance of Fr. Alex with a diocesan security goon 3 days before Christmas to snatch the Baby Jesus, the Three Kings and assorted shepherds from a creche that was set up and in use was not a case of kidnapping at all. Rather, it was a "simple, thoughtful act", that has been willfully distorted by that most reliable and yet convenient whipping-boy, the secular news media, though whom Bishop McDonnell broadcasts his complaint.

For McDonnell, it seems always to boil down to a question of rights. The rights of the new parish (just as the rights of the new parish in Adams) are all-important. The rights of faithful Catholics that dissent do not exist.

It is particularly galling for the Bishop to attempt to portray this as a goodwill gesture. Last time I checked, "goodwill toward men" was a celebrated phrase within a profoundly Christian context at a most sacred time of the year.  If the desire to move the plaster figures was motivated by goodwill, as the Bishop claims, then why did it not occur to these good people to converse with the people at MD? Why did they not give them the courtesy of a phone call or email or......anything, really.....rather than just show up unexpectedly, stuff the Baby Jesus in a box, and drag him away?

From this actions, and the defense of them, it's obvious that the Bishop's definition of "goodwill" does not extend to former parishioners of MD who are still worshipping within the building. That is wrong.

For his penance I strongly recommend that the Bishop reflect on the following reading, which is not found in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but in the "Merchant of Venice" Act 4, Scene 1.

It gives some good pointers on what mercy, and goodwill, are all about. 

The quality of mercy is not strain'd
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.