Progressives are upset that the Constitution limits the control the federal government has over religious schools’ employment — and that the Supreme Court is sticking with the Constitution.
In their arguments for more government control and more lawsuits against religious schools, these progressives are demonstrating a sadly narrow view of faith, religion, and spirituality.
At issue is the breadth of the “ministerial exception” in anti-discrimination law. The Catholic Church, for example, doesn’t ordain women as priests. It also usually doesn’t ordain married men. These policies would violate federal law, if not for the ministerial exception to anti-discrimination laws.
The argument from the Left these days is that the federal government should have say over everyone who isn’t engaged full-time in teaching religious doctrine.
“The ministerial exception is meant to apply only to genuine faith leaders,” the president of Americans United for the Separation of Church said. “It should not be exploited to justify discrimination against math, gym, and computer teachers, who clearly aren’t ministers.”
This has been a common argument in recent months, but it is a faulty one.
In the recent Supreme Court case of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that two women who had lost their jobs were obviously not ministers because they mostly taught nonreligious subjects. “The time Biel and Morrissey-Berru spent on secular instruction far surpassed their time teaching religion,” she wrote. “For the vast majority of class, they taught subjects like reading, writing, spelling, grammar, vocabulary, math, science, social studies and geography.”
Liberal justices, during the oral arguments, asked about the limits of this exemption. As summed up by liberal writer Nina Totenberg, they asked: “Would a math teacher who led students in a short prayer be exempt under the ministerial exception? What about a coach or a camp counselor leading students in a prayer. And what about nurses or other employees?”
If you send your kids to a religious school, you may see the hidden premise in all of these questions or objections — or maybe it’s more precise to say there’s an ignored possibility there. Parents who choose a religious school for their children aren’t doing it so their kid can learn doctrine alongside math and science. We are doing it because we see our children’s schooling as a central piece of our job of forming them into the men and women God wants them to be.
This same truth stands in a secular worldview, if that worldview is properly humanistic. Schooling, properly understood, is not about giving kids knowledge or even “skills.” It is about formation. We are trying to form our sons and daughters into virtuous men and women who are rich in intellectual curiosity.
For religious parents giving their children a religious education, religion class isn’t the only way, or even the primary way, we hope school will form our children in our faith. Our kids, of course, need to know scriptures. They need to get accustomed to the sort of moral reasoning our church teaches. These are the jobs of religion teachers. But they also need constant examples and training in how God wants us to live, and this is the job of every adult in a position of authority or respect at our kids’ schools.
My wife and I are Catholic. Therefore, it is our duty to help our children become saints. We send them to schools that believe the same things we believe about the good life and that also want our kids to be saints. This means the teachers, the librarians, the secretaries, and the coaches all need to be on board with the mission, or it just won’t work. The teachers don’t necessarily need to be Catholic, but they all need to believe in the mission of the school enough that they will be role models for young Catholics.
Our kids’ schools are, at their best, shining cities on a hill. Every teacher there is a role model, who — whether teaching times tables, discussing C.S. Lewis, leading a rosary, or showing how to turn a double play — we hope will be imbuing our children with the virtues and the faith that a Christian should have.
So if the federal government gets to tell a religious school whom they can and cannot hire and fire as a math teacher, the federal government is interfering with our exercise of religion. That’s why the Supreme Court ruled correctly in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru.