US Supreme Court: Church-state separation extends to religious schools

The Supreme Court extended the principle of church-state separation to shield religious schools nationwide from discrimination suits from teachers and school employees who serve as “ministers” of the faith.

In a unanimous ruling, the high court for the first time concluded the Constitution includes a “ministerial exception” that protects churches and their schools from undue interference from the government and its courts. A concurring opinion by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan said they understood the “ministerial exception” to extend equally to “Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists” even if those religions do not use the term “minister.” The exception “should apply to any ‘employee’ who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith,” Alito wrote.

However, lower courts have long recognized that churches are protected from lawsuits involving their internal workings.

Notre Dame Law Professor Rick Garnett called the ruling “one of the court’s most important church-state decisions in decades.” It “protects religious liberty by forbidding governments from second-guessing religious communities’ decisions about who should be their teachers, leaders and ministers,” he said.

The 1st Amendment forbids “an establishment of religion” by the government, and it protects the “free exercise” of religion.

In the past, the court had often invoked the separation of church and state doctrine to strike down state laws that gave aid to religious schools, citing the ban on “establishment” of religion. In this case, the court ruled against government interference with religion, citing the “free exercise” clause.