Every once in a while, a court decision provides a “teachable moment.” A recent case provides one such instance, in another clash of dogma and civil rights.
In Massachusetts, a Superior Court Judge has found a Catholic High School guilty of discrimination for withdrawing a job offer it had extended to one Matthew Barrett; the offer was withdrawn when Barrett listed his husband as his emergency contact on his employment forms, and the school became aware that he was in a same-sex marriage.
The job in question was food services manager.
The nature of the position at issue is important, because the Courts have long held that the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment exempts religious organizations from civil rights laws inconsistent with their religious principles—that religious organizations may discriminate on the basis of their religious dogma— when the position being filled is religious in nature.
As a post to a Law Professors’ blog reported
The school argued that it was justified in not hiring Mr. Barrett because his marriage was inconsistent with the school’s religious teachings. Judge Wilkins based his decision on several findings. Noting that the school was entitled to control its message, he said that right is limited to those in a position to shape the message, including teachers, ministers and spokesperson. Justice Wilkins noted that Mr. Barrett’s position was not in a message shaping catagory and Mr. Barrett has not been an advocate for same sex marriage.
Law is all about drawing lines and making distinctions. We distinguish between killing in self-defense and murder, between free speech and harassment, and—as here— between discrimination necessary to the exercise of religious liberty and discrimination that exceeds that narrow category.
Where those lines get drawn is always subject to debate and dependent upon facts and evidence.
Here, the issue appears to be straightforward: should a religious organization be entitled to hire and fire non-religious support staff-–janitors, secretaries, cooks, food services managers—on the basis of compliance with the institution’s religious doctrine?
This case is likely to go to the U.S. Supreme Court. As the Law Professors’ blog says, “stay tuned.”