Jewish Journal

Are all religious school teachers ‘ministers’ under the law?

by Brad A. Greenberg

August 7, 2011 | 3:18 pm

Interesting column from the Baptist Press about the “ministerial exception,” a judicial doctrine that tells courts to keep out of disputes between religious organizations and their ministers. The exception is at issue in a case that involved the firing of a teacher at a school run by Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Kevin Theriot writes:

While the Sixth Circuit upheld this principle in EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church, it failed to apply it because it found the teacher in question was not really a minister. The court said she wasn’t a minister because she spent six hours a day teaching secular subjects like math, social studies and music. Only an hour or so was spent on exclusively religious instruction. So the school was prohibited from firing the teacher, even though she allegedly violated church teachings regarding mediation of disputes among believers.

The court failed to recognize something even Christians sometimes forget—our biblical worldview and Christian principles affect all aspects of our lives. That certainly includes how we teach our children all subjects—even those that don’t appear to be “religious”—such as music and social studies. It even includes math, as demonstrated by the great mathematicians Sir Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case, which according to Theriot will be the first ministerial exception case that the high court will hear. (Check out the Sixth Circuit opinion here.) Should be interesting to see how this one comes out.

My suspicion is that the Sixth Circuit will be affirmed. Though I completely agree with Theriot’s point about religion permeating all school subjects for believers, accreditation of schools is something that comes from the state, and for mandatory teaching subjects like math and social studies, states have certain requirements for how those subjects are taught. If that’s true, it would undercut any argument that the school couldn’t assign teachers to either only religious subjects, for whom the ministerial exception would apply, or only mandatory subjects, for whom the exception would not apply.

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