Ian C. Bartrum (U. of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law) has posted The Ministerial Exception and the Limits of Religious Sovereignty. The abstract follows.

In January, the Supreme Court announced its decision in Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC and gave its official blessing to the controversial bit of doctrine known as the “ministerial exception.” The exception, which has been alive in the Circuit Courts for nearly forty years, exempts religious organizations from employment discrimination laws in the context of “ministerial” hiring decisions. Thus, such organizations are free to discriminate against ministerial employees not only on the basis of religion—which various statutory exemptions already permit—but also on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Several thoughtful and well-­‐respected voices have suggested that this effectively places churches “above the law,” and in some sense these criticisms seem to ring true. The constitutional justification often offered for this state of affairs, however, is that churches are not so much above the civil law, as simply outside of its jurisdiction. That is, while we may disapprove of the ways that a church selects its leadership—indeed, we may even believe that certain hiring practices are illegal—our constitutional structure simply does not empower the government to intervene in matters of church governance. And we have structured our Constitution in this way based, in large part, on the liberal Lockean conviction that church and state operate within separate and incommensurable spheres.

Carried to its logical extreme, however, this conception of separate and independent religious sovereignty suggests that the bar to governmental intervention in church governance is absolute; that a church can do anything—including, presumably, perform sacrificial rituals—that its members believe essential to basic governance decisions. In truth, however, no one I know of holds this sort of extreme, absolutist view, and thus arises the theoretical puzzle this essay addresses. If religious sovereignty is not absolute—if the liberal check on the state’s power to invade church jurisdiction does not go “all the way down”—then where do the limits on that sovereignty lie, and how do we determine that a church has exceeded them? In what follows, I draw some lessons from Thomas Kuhn’s thoughts about the shared grounds on which scientists justify their choices between incommensurable theoretical paradigms. Ultimately, I conclude that we can and do make decisions about the scope of religious sovereignty by balancing constitutional purposes against one another in making what Kuhn called “value judgments.” In the case of the ministerial exception, it is my constitutional value judgment that racial discrimination both exceeds the limits of independent religious sovereignty, and justifies state intervention in church governance.

Leave a Reply