Supreme Court Decisions
The October 2011 term of the US Supreme Court was historical and exciting. This term, which ran from October 31, 2011 to June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court heard and decided 77 cases. Two cases were decided that affect churches. First, was National Federation of Independent Business et. al. v. Sebelius Secretary of Health and Human Services, et. al, which indirectly affects churches. This case involves national health care, and affirms the ability of a state to control state issues that directly affect the people of the state. Secondly, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, directly affects churches. A unanimous Court held a church has a Constitutional right to control their internal affairs and government.
The first case, National Federation, commonly referred to as the National Health Care case, indirectly affects churches. Although the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known at ObamaCare, was upheld as Constitutional, the Court additionally held that State Sovereignty under the 10th amendment allowed the state to control local issues. Two major provisions of ObamaCare were considered and decided by the Court: 1) the "individual mandate" and 2) the "Medicare Expansion."
In National Federation, the Court was tasked with deciding whether these two mandates violated the Constitution. The "individual mandate" was held to be Constitutional, and the "Medicare Expansion" was held to be unconstitutional. Chief Justice Roberts authored the majority opinion of the Court. Chief Justice Roberts stated that the US Supreme Court can strike an act of Congress only if Congress lacks the constitutional authority to pass the act that is being questioned, and only if that lack of authority is clearly demonstrated. The majority further states, "When a court confronts an unconstitutional statute its endeavor must be to conserve, not destroy, the legislation."
The majority holds the Supreme Court's position in the American government to be a "limited role" policing the boundaries of the limits of government power, and that members of this Court are given authority to interpret the law. This power gives neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments. Those decisions are to be given to elected leaders that can be removed from office if the American people see fit. Finally Chief Justice Roberts states, "It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices."
The "individual mandate" requires Americans to maintain "minimum and essential" health insurance. In addition, individuals that do not receive adequate health insurance via the government or their employers must buy additional health care from a private source. If an individual does not have the adequate health care, he will be required to make a "shared responsibility payment" to the Federal Government via the IRS. The majority of the Court held that the "individual mandate" can survive under Congress's power to tax, but not under interstate commerce. Chief Justice Roberts stated, "The Framers knew the difference between doing something and doing nothing. They gave Congress the power to regulate commerce, not to compel it."
On the other hand concerning Congress's power to tax, the majority holds that the only effect of the individual mandate is to raise taxes on those who do not have the required health care. Therefore the only way the law may be upheld is as a tax. Thus the "individual mandate" survived a 5-4 vote under Congress's power to tax.
In contrast, the Medicare expansion failed because it violated the 10th Amendment. Chief Justice Roberts states, "When Congress threatens to terminate other grants as a means of pressuring the States to accept a spending clause program, the legislation runs counter to the Nation's system of federalism." The majority holds that the Federal Government can only exercise the powers given to it within the Constitution.
The Court further held that powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution are reserved to the States or to the people. The majority quoting President James Madison stated that when affairs are concerning the "lives, liberties, and properties of the people," these tasks were to be handled by a local, thus more accountable, government rather than a federal bureaucracy. Concluding, the Court holds, "Congress may offer funds to the States, and may condition those offers on compliance with specified conditions...These offers may well induce the States to adopt policies that the Federal Government itself could not impose." Therefore, the Medicare expansion provision failed because it violates the 10th Amendment.
The second case, Hosanna-Tabor, involves a teacher who was discharged from a religious school. The teacher filed suit for discrimination. The school claims to have fired her because of her "insubordination and disruptive behavior," but she however claims that she was discharged because of a medical condition. The issue before the Court was, "whether the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar such an action when the employer is a religious group and the employee is one of the group's ministers." The US Supreme Court unanimously held, "...only that the ministerial exception bars an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church's decision to fire her. The Court expresses no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits."
Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran School employs two types of teachers, "called" and "lay," A "lay" teacher is just an ordinary, qualified teacher, but is only hired if "called" teachers are not available. A "called" teacher is viewed by the congregation as being called by God to be a teacher. To be a called teacher, not only does the individual have to meet academic requirements of a "lay" teacher, but also has to complete a "colloquy" program at a Lutheran college or university. In Hosanna-Tabor, the Court had to decide if these actions were enough to conclude that the plaintiff is a minister, and if the "ministerial exception" of the First amendment applied.
In Hosanna-Tabor, the Court for the first time resolves an issue between the freedom of a religious organization to select ministers and of a minister of such an organization to be protected from employment discrimination. The Court has long held that there is a "ministerial exception" within the 1st amendment, and that this exception applies to the employment relationship between a minister and a religious institution. In addition, the Court held that members of a congregation put their faith into the hands of their minister, and to make them retain an unwanted minister would affect more than just the employment decision.
First, the Court held that to allow this suit to proceed would violate the Free Exercise Clause, and that such action of interferences with the internal governance of the church would cause the church to lose control over who controls its beliefs. Imposing an unwanted minister goes against a religious group's right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. Additionally, the Establishment Clause bars this case, because the clause prevents government involvement with ecclesiastical decisions. The Court also states that it has no power to interfere with an internal church decision that affects, "the faith and mission of the church itself." Finally, the Court held that exception does not just apply to when a minister is terminated for religious reasons, but the purpose of the exception is to protect the congregations' ability to, "select and control who will minister to the faithful."
In Hosanna-Tabor, the Court held that the exception applies because the plaintiff is considered to be a minister. She is considered thus because, "Hosanna-Tabor expressly charged her with 'lead[ing] others toward Christian Ministry' and 'teach[ing] faithfully the Word of God, the Sacred Scriptures, in its truth and purity and as set forth in all the symbolical books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.'" The plaintiff argues that because of her secular duties of teaching that she cannot be considered a minister, but the Court held that although time spent on religious activities is important many ministers spend time doing secular things and that the Court must consider the nature of the religious functions performed by the individual. Therefore the Court held, "The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way." The majority held that a minister may not sue his/her employer because of the ministerial exception, and to determine if an individual is a minister one must look at whether the religious institution views the individual as a minister that affects the purpose and mission of their church or religious organization.
The October 2011 term of the US Supreme Court has produced two decisions that profoundly affect churches and religious organizations. National Federation is important because even though the health care act survives, the Court held that only the state and the people have the right to decide issues that are local and close to them. The second case, Hosanna-Tabor, the unanimous Court upheld the church's ability to select its own ministers, and to decide the faith and mission of their local association. Although this current Supreme Court term can be viewed in a negative light, there were some encouraging cases that were decided that help churches and religious organizations.