Catholic Church employees and others are speaking out about the negative impacts of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding ministerial exemptions to employment non-discrimination law. The court determined that a religious institution could broadly define which employees fall into the category of “ministers” and thus be exempt from following legal protections against discrimination, including those for LGBTQ+ identity.
Religion News Service interviewed several church employees to see how the ruling would affect them or their institutions. In particular, the article noted the vulnerability of LGBTQ+ educators in Catholic schools, and said that “Many of those LGBTQ teachers are even more troubled about possible firings today” than they had been before the ruling. One educator explained:
“ ‘The minute the Supreme Court ruling came out, I sent all my stuff to my lawyer, including the school’s policy, and I was like, “Should I be worried about my job?”’ said one New York City Catholic school administrator who is queer and didn’t give her name because she fears she might get fired if she acknowledged her sexuality at the school where she works.”
Ish Ruiz, a religious studies teacher at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory H.S., San Francisco, also has the job of helping other teachers develop their spirituality. While Ruiz acknowledges that his role would probably classify him as a minster, he “worries that those who teach math, science, English and social studies at his school could now be classified as ministers if they partake in explorations of their spiritual gifts,” the article reported.
“‘This makes it harder to get my Catholic colleagues to engage on what it means to be Catholic educator, if in doing so, they might be performing a ministerial function, thus depriving themselves of civil rights,’ Ruiz said.”
The situation for church employees could get worse in terms of their civil rights becauselaw firms that represent churches and religious institutions are encouraging their clients “to beef up their governance documents to clearly state their religious character and thereby immunize them from discrimination claims,” the article said. One such lawyer was quoted:
“What I’ve been telling people so far, and will continue to do, is to be as religious as possible,” said Sally Wagenmaker, a lawyer with Wagenmaker & Oberly in Chicago, a firm that takes religious liberty cases. “If you’re a religious organization now, get more religious. If you’re not very religious, think about it, if you want to protect your religious liberty protections.”
For institutions that prioritize classifying all employees as ‘ministers,’ one Catholic institution employee recommended that Catholic employers ought to be explicit about this classification in hiring practices. J. Patrick Hornbeck II, who is a legally married gay man and chair of the theology department at Fordham University, New York, notes that would let the pool of interested applicants know they should be prepared to “forfeit their civil rights protections.” Hornbeck said:
“If religious employers were encouraged to say, “We deem you a minister. And please note from the beginning of your employment with us that you don’t have these job protections,’ That would allow an employee on the front end to know he or she is entering on a job where they don’t have normal protections.”
This Supreme Court decision has brought about multiple losses. First and foremost is the loss of civil liberties by a wide number of employees at Catholic and other religious schools, agencies, and institutions. Second is the lost opportunity to foster an inclusive and robust dialogue about Catholic or religious identity in these institutions. The third loss was identified in a comment from Ruiz, who observed “We have corrupted the word ‘minister.’ We put a stain on the word”
—Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, July 30, 2020