A Presbyterian Church in Virginia will have to give more “to Caesar” and less “to God?” following a defeat in a property tax dispute today at the U.S. Supreme Court. The church had sought to avoid paying property taxes on a home used by two of its employees, which it considers to be pastors. Under Virginia law, ministers ?? homes are exempt from local property taxes. Yet the city of Fredericksburg doubted that the employees were in fact ministers.
The Nine refused to take up the controversy and saddled the Church of Virginia with the tax bill. In a dissent, Justice Gorsuch took an exception to the idea that government officials questioned churches over how they classify their staff: “Bureaucratic efforts to” subordinate. “Religious beliefs for” verification “have no place in a free country ,? ? he wrote. ?? This case may be a small one, ?? he says, and he hoped it was not likely that it would be repeated soon.
Yet the question of whether an employee qualifies as a minister is not limited to property tax disputes. Religious groups, including schools, have also cited the so-called “ministerial exception”. as a reason to remain unbound by state and federal rules regarding employment and dismissal. In 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that this exception gives religious groups a great deal of leeway to elect their ministers. It also instructs ministers to bring discrimination in the workplace against their employers.
In that case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Commission for Equal Employment Opportunities, Chief Justice Roberts noted the Michigan church school’s distinction between “called,” or ministerial, and ?? lay ?? teachers. After a ?? called ?? the teacher became ill and was fired, she accused the church of discrimination citing the Americans with Disabilities Act. The teacher initially sought to be re-employed, but instead demanded compensation. The Supreme Court found that the church was in its right to fire her.
The “change clauses” of the first amendment, Chief Justice Roberts explained, “exclude the government from interfering in a religious group’s decision to fire one of its ministers.” That’s because “members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers,” Chief Justice Roberts explained. “To demand that a church accept or retain an unwanted priest, or to punish a church for failing to do so, interferes with more than just a hiring decision.”
While the Supreme Court has given religious groups a wide discretion over the hiring and firing of ministerial staff, the High Court has not clearly defined which employees are ministers. ?? We are reluctant, ?? Chief Justice Roberts said, “to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.” It has opened the door to litigation in cases where e.g. Roman Catholic schools sought First Amendment protection by firing gay teachers.
In the Virginia Church case, the employees in question were “directors of the College Outreach and Youth Ministers”, ?? the church says, “service to students?” at a nearby university. Fredericksburg objected that they were only employed part-time. The city “made extensive discovery in the church’s practices and beliefs,” Justice Gorsuch noted. City officials even asked if the church was allowed to ordain one of the female priests in light of the fact that she was a woman.
Absent evidence of dishonesty or fraud, ?? Justice Gorsuch argues, “State intrusion into ecclesiastical matters is” impermissible. “Yet Fredericksburg continues to insist that a church’s religious rules are” subject to verification. “By officials, he writes. This clearly impedes justice. He notes , that the founders “were well aware of how governments in Europe had sought to control and manipulate religious practices and churches,” and had promised not to repeat it in the new nation.
Quotes James Madison’s “memorial and remonstrance”, ?? who argues for keeping the government out of religious affairs, Justice Gorsuch notes that in the founders ?? vision, America “would not subscribe to the” arrogant pretense ???? that officials can act as judges “of religious truth.” In Justice Gorsuch’s view, “religious persons?” should “decide for themselves, free from state interference,” the vital questions of “faith and doctrine.” Hence his dissent, where Caesar so far won the day.
Image: Detail of official portrait of Justice Gorsuch, via Wikimedia Commons.