US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Is Tabor v EEOC decision "good" for religious freedom?

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

I guess that depends on what you mean by "good." Most religious types, including Bishop William Lori for the U.S. bishops, are celebrating the decision (you can read one take here; AP story here).

The case in question involved a schoolteacher at Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church (MIssouri Synod), a "called" teacher, in that she provided religious instruction at the school. She also suffered from narcolepsy, and had to go on leave to deal with her condition. When she didn't return after six months, the school asked her to resign. She refused, citing the Americans with Disabilities Act, which would apply if she was not working for a religious institution. When the school terminated her, she threatened to sue under the ADA--and then the school fired her on religious grounds, claiming she had violated church teaching by not using the denominational grievance process and for suing other members of the church. Tabor invoked the "minister exemption," which allows a church to "discriminate" for religious reasons in hiring and firing.

The minister exemption was meant to protect religious institutions from having to employ people who don't share that church's religious beliefs--and a way to keep U.S. courts out of religious disputes. It applies to clergy, for example, but not to cafeteria workers at a religious institution. Churches have also used the "minister exemption" to keep it from being goverened by such laws as the ADA, ERISA, FMLA, and COBRA (the last two having to do with retirement benefits and health insurance). In other words churches, including the Catholic church, have used it to exempt themselves from legislation aimed at protecting workers. (Many Catholic employers, by the way, offer family leave, provide the option to COBRA for health insurance, and are ADA compliant, but their participation is only voluntary.)

Under the rubric of "religious freedom," churches have pursued further expantions of the "minister exemption," applying it to almost anyone who works for the church. This case, then, continues the expansion beyond clergy to a "called" grammar school teacher, and beyond her actual work in the classroom to a dispute between a worker and management. (As editor of a religious-owned magazine, I no doubt qualify as a "minister," for example.)

So the question: Is it a victory for religious freedom for a church to terminate a disabled employee for invoking the Americans with Disabilities Act? Perhaps for church institutions who don't want to be governed by such laws--but I'm not sure it looks good for the gospel. I can see the danger of letting the courts get into theology, but shouldn't church workers have some of the same basic protections--against discrimination on the basis of disability, for example--that other workers have? Or are we OK with a church management possibly trumping up a religious reason to get rid of someone?