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In what some legal scholars were calling the most significant religion case in 20 years, the Supreme Court ruled today that a Lutheran school teacher was a "minister" who could not sue the church that fired her in 2005.

"The First Amendment provides, in part, that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,'" Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the unanimous opinionforHosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. "We have said that these two Clauses 'often exert conflicting pressures,' and that there can be 'internal tension … between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.' Not so here. Both Religion Clauses bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers."

"This is a huge win for religious liberty," said Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia Law School professor who represented the church at the Supreme Court's oral arguments in October. "The Court has unanimously confirmed the right of churches to select their own ministers and religious leaders. It has unanimously held that the courts cannot inquire into whether the church had religious reasons for its decisions concerning a minister. The longstanding unanimity in the lower courts has now been confirmed by unanimity in the Supreme Court."

Today's decision marks the first time the justices have considered what is widely knows as "the ministerial exception" to antidiscrimination employment laws. While the top court has never directly ruled on whether such an exception exists or protects religious organizations from lawsuits on such matters, Roberts noted, appellate courts "have had extensive experience with this issue."

The court was unequivocal: "We agree that there is such a ministerial exception," Roberts wrote. "Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs."

Imposing unwanted ministers and telling religious organizations who they can hire and fire violates both religion clauses of the First Amendment, the court said. It violates the free exercise of religion because a religious group has the "group's right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments." And it violates the establishment clause because it gives "the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful."

Limited decision, sweeping language

On one hand, the court suggested that its decision was narrow. "We are reluctant … to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister," Roberts wrote. "It is enough for us to conclude, in this our first case involving the ministerial exception, that the exception covers [the school teacher who brought the lawsuit], given all the circumstances of her employment." Likewise, the court said it was not ruling on whether the ministerial exception bars religious employees suing their employers for other reasons, like breach of contract. "There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances if and when they arise," the court said.

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Church Wins Firing Case at Supreme Court