Defending the church-state wall is hard work, and the battle has only grown fiercer over the years. Recently, Christian nationalist legal groups filed three petitions for review in the Supreme Court, looking for a favorable decision to allow them to discriminate against those who don’t share their values. The cases they’ve filed sound a bit convoluted, but the motive behind the petitions is dangerous.
The three cases, Gordon College v. DeWeese-Boyd, Woods v. Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission and Trustees of the New Life in Christ Church v. City of Fredericksburg all may affect the scope of something called the “ministerial exception,” a legal doctrine which gives religious institutions the freedom to select their own ministers. Religious organizations have frequently sought to broaden the exception to apply to people who are clearly not ministers to sidestep civil rights laws. Two of these cases aim to do just that in the employment realm, while another seeks to expand who counts as a minister under existing tax law.
Gordon College v. DeWeese-Boyd and Woods v. Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission both deal with employment protections. The first case involves Margaret DeWeese-Boyd, a professor of social work at Gordon College, a private Christian liberal arts school in Wenham, Mass. Officials at the college argue that DeWeese-Boyd is a minister because she had to integrate a “Christian perspective” into her teaching.
The two courts that have heard the case have both ruled in the professor’s favor, with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court stating that her “duties as an associate professor of social work differ significantly from cases where the ministerial exception has been applied, as she did not teach religion or religious texts, lead her students in prayer, take students to chapel services or other religious services, deliver sermons at chapel services, or select liturgy.” Nonetheless, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is asking for U.S. Supreme Court review in this case, contending that DeWeese-Boyd is somehow a minister because of her contract, despite the fact that she does nothing a minister is considered by law to do.
In Woods v. Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, Matthew Woods filed a complaint against a gospel mission in Washington state, claiming that it refused to hire him for the seemingly un-ministerial position of staff attorney because of his same-sex relationship. Unlike in DeWeese-Boyd, the gospel mission and the ADF are focusing less on the ministerial exception, arguing rather that the mission has a constitutional right to hire only coreligionists.
According to the mission, whether a person counts as a coreligionist is totally up to the religious institution, and religious institutions should be permitted to discriminate based on protected characteristics – like sexual orientation – if they believe the person has violated their religious tenets. This argument presents an even broader attack on anti-discrimination laws than do efforts to expand the definition of a minister, because if accepted it would give religious institutions the ability to discriminate against all people – not just ministerial employees – who don’t believe in and follow an institution’s religious tenets.
Finally, in Trustees of the New Life in Christ Church v. City of Fredericksburg, religious organizations are trying to expand the definition of who counts as a minister under Virginia tax law, a parallel move to the ones the ADF is pushing for in its cases. Taxes, oddly enough, are the latest civil law religious institutions seem to want out of.
These cases all have similar throughlines. Among other things, religious organizations want to claim that if, say, a janitor, has ministerial duties written into her contract, that she can be considered a minister despite not ever performing those responsibilities. In my mind, I don’t think of janitors as particularly ministerial, and it seems odd to me to suggest that people who don’t preach, proselytize or promote a religion are ministers.
As bewildering as all these cases may sound, they reveal a striking amount about the goals of religious extremists: They want to blow an enormous hole into employment protections to discriminate against others. These extremists and their lawmaker allies are aiming to carve out a constitutional right to hire and fire people without legal scrutiny. Their ultimate goal is to empower organizations to fire someone because of, say, their race, their age or their sexuality. Worst of all, those people who were fired would have no legal mechanism for recourse. In other words, religious extremists are pushing to remove the basic employment protections of millions of people.
One of AU’s ongoing cases, Gregory Tucker v. Faith Bible Chapter International, offers similar insight into religious extremists’ attempts to exploit the ministerial exception and sidestep civil rights and employment protections. In this case, Director of Student Life Gregg Tucker conducted an anti-racism symposium with his school administration’s support after witnessing unchecked racism in the school. While the event was overwhelmingly well-received, a handful of parents objected and demanded that Gregg be fired, which he eventually was. In June 2019, Gregg sued the school for violating his civil rights. The school is now trying to shirk responsibility for unjustly firing him by exploiting the ministerial exception. Yet Gregg is anything but a minister. He not only had no important religious functions and did not teach theology, but he was explicitly told by the school that he was not a minister when he inquired about a ministerial tax deduction.
In the United States, civil rights protections are something we all assume we have, and something we all assume won’t disappear at the drop of a gavel. Yet religious extremists are intent on cutting up these protections in the courts. These organizations ought to remember, as Will Hunting said in the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting” that “liberty … is the soul’s right to breathe. And when it cannot take a long breath, laws are girded too tight.”
Christian nationalists should not constrict Americans’ right to work free of discrimination, and they should not use the law to punish people for living and believing as they choose.