Has Church Law taken precedence over Civil Law in the Land of the ‘Free’?

The separation between Church and State has been a staple of American Law since it was written into the First Amendment of the US Constitution; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

So it is curious that the Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that “ministers” cannot sue their churches under federal employment discrimination laws. This means that the highest court in ‘the Land of the Free’ has declared that Church Law takes precedence over Civil Law. There has been minor fanfare regarding this case, many asserting the painfully obvious fact that this is a direct breach of the US Constitution, but given the dire implications of this ruling, the protests have been surprisingly muted.

The case involves Cheryl Perich, a teacher at Hosanna-Tabor, a Lutheran Church-run school in Michigan, who went on disability leave in December 2004, due to a case of diagnosed narcolepsy. Her doctor expected her to be able to return to full-time work in two to three months; the following month the school changed its health insurance policy, hired another teacher and suggested that Perich resign. When she refused and threatened to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), she was fired. As the school fired her in retaliation, it breached the ADA; however, it maintains that as Perich was a minister of the Church, it was free to do so since church doctrine asserts that such disputes must be resolved within the Church. The case was taken to the Supreme Court and startlingly, the Supreme Court ruled 9 to 0 that Perich could not sue the Church.

This means that anyone who works in any capacity for the Church or other religious institutions has no legal recourse if they were to be abused at work. The Americans United for Separation of Church and State highlighted that, “A pastor who objected to being sexually harassed, for example, could be fired for raising that issue and have no recourse in the courts.” Thus, the Church holds more legal significance over the citizens of the US, which raises the question: why are Americans – a people famous for their love of liberty and civil rights – not up in arms about the damage this is doing to their justice system?

This could be a result of the US wanting to uphold an image of integrity on the international stage. The US can be seen to put forward Christianity as morally superior to Islam, Christianity being a religion, which promotes Liberty, Equality and Freedom, whereas Islam, when it becomes the law of the country, such as in Iran, is seen to promote the discrimination of women, homosexuals and non-Muslims.  As such, the two are at odds with one another and the US is adamant not to challenge the stability of the Christian faith in this time of heightened tensions between Iran and the US.

So, on the one hand, you have the US, a country whose most powerful court has ruled that Church Law is of more importance than Civil Law. On the other, you have Iran, a country that puts Religious Law ahead of Civilian Law. While this ruling doesn’t come close to the human rights abuses in Iran, it certainly dents America’s moral superiority. The Church and the US Supreme Court have both failed in their respective roles and have shown that the autonomy of the Church from the State takes precedence over the rights of individual citizens.

Ben James



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