AHA files Supreme Court amicus brief opposing employment discrimination law exemption for religious organizations

The Appignani Humanist Legal Center has filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the American Humanist Association and other allied organizations with the Supreme Court of the United States. The Court is hearing an appeal of a case that turns on the question of whether religious organizations have a constitutional right to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, age or disability in violation of employment laws.

“The Supreme Court has made clear that the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution does not give religious defendants a special right to violate any law that they feel infringes in some way on their freedom of religion,” said Bill Burgess, attorney and legal coordinator of the American Humanist Association’s legal arm, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “We are all equally required to comply with the law, secular and religious alike, and this includes federal statutes banning employment discrimination. These laws embody and protect a critical and hard-won democratic value: equality for all Americans.”

The special religious exemption at issue in this case, called the “ministerial exception” by those lower courts that have adopted it, has never been considered by the Supreme Court. The right of religious employers, such as churches and related institutions, to require that employees to be of the same religion as their employer is not at issue in this case.

The amicus brief argues that recognizing the ministerial exception would place religious institutions above the law, unjustly denying to their employees their day in court when they have been subject to illegal discrimination by their employer. The brief also argues that courts themselves violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of the laws to all, when they act to throw out an employment discrimination case against a religious institution because in so doing they become complicit in the employer’s discrimination by denying its victim any legal remedy.

“Our courts should have no role in protecting illegal discriminatory conduct. Their purpose instead is to act as a fair, secular tribunal to determine whether an employee has had his or her legal rights violated and to provide the justice due if they have been,” said Burgess.

Arguments in the case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, will be heard by the Supreme Court in early October.

The Appignani Humanist Legal Center is a project of the American Humanist Association that provides legal assistance to defend the constitutional rights of secular Americans by challenging violations of the separation of church and state guaranteed by the Establishment Clause of the Constitution and seeking equal rights for humanists, atheists and other freethinkers.

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