Some UUA pride

Supreme Court building

Supreme Court building (Architect of the Capitol)

I have never been more proud of the UUA, or more disappointed in the rest of America’s faith groups.

It’s all about a case the Supreme Court heard a couple months ago involving a teacher at a Lutheran school. In short, she was fired, claimed it was because of a disability, and threatened to sue under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The school then claimed that she was really a minister, and thus did not have rights to sue under the ADA. This is because of the “ministerial exception,” which gives religious groups the right to discriminate in who they make ministers; this is often for good reason, as when a group requires a minister belong to their faith tradition. In other cases, it’s less obviously a good thing; Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and many Muslim groups can require their clergy to be male, for instance. In this case, because the teacher taught some religious classes, though most of her time was spent on subjects like math, the school says she is a minister, and thus her firing is no business of the courts. Moreover, the Lutherans argue that the government shouldn’t decide who is and is not a minister.

To learn more about the case, read here, here and in a UU World that will soon be published (I’ll post the link when it goes live). The summary above was cobbled together from these stories. (Late addition to this post: UU minister Naomi King wrote an interesting post about this a couple months ago.)

The most interesting thing in a very interesting case is this: every major U.S. denomination (and a bunch of minor ones, too) has amicus briefs with the Supreme Court supporting the Lutheran school. Every denomination, that is, except one: the Unitarian Universalist Association.

In principle, I agree with the Lutherans that the government shouldn’t be deciding who is and is not a minister. That is the business of our faith traditions (in the UUA, that’s individual congregations, who have the power to ordain, and the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, which essentially credentials ministers). There are positions in which this is hard to determine; in UU churches, Directors of Religious Education, while not clergy, might be considered ministers since their primary duty is teaching religious material, for instance. But the Lutherans screwed up, here. They’re exploiting a loophole in the law here, not carefully defending their ministry. Here’s why, as a USA Today article put it:

But a coalition of religion and law professors, supporting the teacher, opposed a “breathtaking” expansion of the definition of ministers: “One irony and injustice in the ministerial rule is that women employees of denominations that do not ordain women suddenly become ministers at the moment they file a lawsuit,” the coalition wrote. It continued: “Although some Roman Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women may not become priests, imams or rabbis,…the courts and churches confer ministerial status upon them just long enough to keep their lawsuits out of court.”

If denominations aren’t going to seriously and responsibly consider who their ministers are, they don’t deserve the right to be defended from ADA lawsuits. I’m glad the UUA has stepped up and said as much, and I’ll say it again: I’ve never been more proud of my faith.

3 Responses to “Some UUA pride”
  1. Here’s the coverage where I first heard about this story:

    “Can Churches Fire Employees Who Are Not Ministers?”

    We should also mention that a few other faith groups supported the employee who was fired for bringing a lawsuit under the ADA — National Council of Jewish Women and Sikh Council on Religion and Education supported the employee’s case.

    • Christian says:

      Thanks, Steve. I tried to be careful to say that we were the only denomination supporting the employee, because you are totally correct about the other religious groups.

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  1. […] court handed down a decision today in a case (I wrote about it here) involving a teacher at a religious school who was fired after she threatened to sue over her […]

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