There's something perverse about Hosanna-Tabor, last fall's unanimous Supreme Court decision that gave religious institutions a blanket exemption from employment anti-discrimination laws in firing ministers. It undermines religion.
How? Consider Janet Herzog, who became a lay elementary teacher at St. Peter Lutheran School in Schaumburg, Ill., in1987. The following year, acting on a calling, she completed studies in religion at Concordia College, which entitled her to ministerial status at the Missouri Synod Lutheran school. Although the bulk of her teaching continued to be taken up with ordinary secular subjects, she taught some religion classes as well and received a higher salary.
In 2009, Herzog was informed by the school that she was being let go for budgetary reasons. She sued, claiming age and sex discrimination. Last week, a federal district judge dismissed her case, citing Hosanna-Tabor.
The point is that if Herzog had remained a lay teacher, she would have had a case. Indeed, it's possible that she was fired precisely because, as a minister, she could be fired without fear of a lawsuit. St. Peter Lutheran School would thus have taken a step down the secular road, sacrificing a trained minister while retaining a lay teacher.
Meanwhile, as word of Hosanna-Tabor gets out and about, teachers at religious schools around the country will be advised to avoid ministerial status like the plague. Sure, their income might be enhanced a bit, but at the price of being subject to firing for any reason. Gone is the incentive to go back to school for religious education. And teachers will be less capable of providing the religious instruction that the schools want.
The Obama Justice Department has been roundly criticized by religious conservatives for opposing the blanket ministerial exception that Hosanna-Tabor established. Indeed, that opposition has been a principal item in their argument that the administration is anti-religion. But is it pro-religion to give religious organizations an incentive to get rid of ministers in favor of lay teachers?