Supreme Court Rejects Obama Administration Power Grab Over Churches in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC

The Supreme Court has rejected the Obama administration’s argument that it can dictate who churches hire as ministers or clergy in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Obama administration unsuccessfully argued that the government can dictate who churches hire, as long as it also subjects secular employers to the same dictates regarding who they hire (so-called rules of general applicability). Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument would allow the government to ban a church or synagogue from hiring based on religion (defeating the whole purpose of religious freedom, which is to allow churches to promote their own religion) or sex (preventing the Catholic Church from having a male priesthood). No Supreme Court justice bought the administration’s argument, made on behalf of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The Supreme Court unanimously found that such government control over who churches can hire would violate the religion clauses of the First Amendment.

If federal antidiscrimination laws covered churches’ hiring of clergy, as the Obama administration demanded, they would have to not just avoid discriminating based on things like sex or religion, but would also have to radically alter sensible hiring criteria by eliminating longstanding, neutral church practices that have the affect of inadvertently screening out more members of a minority group than of other groups (so-called “disparate impact” or “unintentional discrimination”). For example, some branches of the Lutheran Church have hiring criteria for religious broadcasters on their radio programs, such as “knowledge of Lutheran doctrine,” and “classical music training,” that few minorities satisfy (only 2 percent of all people with Lutheran training are minorities, and only 0.1 percent of people with both Lutheran training and classical music training are minorities), given the Lutheran Church’s historical roots in overwhelmingly white areas like Germany, Scandinavia, and Minnesota. Even though they are happy to have black applicants, and do not treat black applicants worse based on their race, the EEOC could easily sue them for racially disparate impact if the Obama administration’s argument had been accepted. (The religion clauses of the First Amendment not only protect who churches hire as ministers, but also other people who serve as “voices of the church,” such as theology professors, and religious broadcasters on behalf of a church.)

We previously wrote about ways that the Obama administration is attacking religious freedom and separation of church and state at this link. We described how the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is wiping out jobs and discouraging hiring and job creation through onerous interpretations of federal employment laws, at this link.

The extreme position taken by the Obama Justice Department in the Hosanna-Tabor case is a reflection of ideologically-based hiring. Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department has chosen to hire only liberal lawyers, not moderates or conservatives, for key Justice Department posts that are supposed to be non-political career appointments. Although many experienced lawyers are out of work in the current economic slump, the Obama Justice Department has hired many liberals who have no real-world legal experience, rather than hiring based on merit.

More commentary about the Hosanna-Tabor case can be found at this link. (The Obama administration suggested in its briefs that freedom of association could provide a theoretical check on government demands that institutions not hire based on specified criteria, even if — as it claimed — religious freedom does not limit the reach of employment laws that apply to both secular and religious employers. But this suggestion was disingenuous, since the administration and the EEOC have argued in other cases that free-association rights are outweighed and overridden by the government’s compelling interest in eradicating discrimination. And free-association defenses, unlike religious-freedom defenses, are generally losers, as the Supreme Court’s Hishon, Jaycees , and New York State Club Association decisions illustrate. Those rulings held that the government’s compelling interest in eradicating discrimination overrode the mere free-association rights of a law firm and various private clubs.)