Martin Marty on Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC: "It's complicated."
A Lutheran School
-- Martin E. Marty
Back in the middle of the twentieth century, when I lived and worked too briefly in Washington, D.C., a photographer friend sneaked me in to look on as he took formal pictures of dignitaries. I decided that the Supreme Court bench was the place to be among the powers. The building inspired awe. Its nine supreme employees had life tenure and ample research staffs. Location near the Library of Congress with its resources appealed to the historian side of me. Yes, the Supreme Court was the place to be.
In my sixty-two happy years in Exile or in the Promised Land away from the capital, I have found almost daily reasons to revise my vision, for one main reason. The Court cases that fell into my scholarly zone and aroused my citizen passions had to do with religion, coded as “Church and State.” And in that zone it became apparent that all cases which reach the Supremes are extremely difficult and, in some ways, insoluble, but they must be adjudicated. For most of us in this zone, two conflicting interests or demands almost always surface. On one hand, we want to see constitutional safeguards which assure religious freedom defended and enhanced. On the other, we need to see that justice be done, especially in religious controversies which impinge on the civil order.
All those concerns surface each autumn when the Court agenda gets prefigured and each late spring when the decisions show once again that conflicting interests cannot all be addressed or cases decided to the satisfaction of half the citizens and even to both sides of the brains of each. Try this year’s puzzler; Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, a case originating in Michigan. There a church school board fired Cheryl, a “commissioned minister” who, with that title was vulnerable for dismissal, which would not have been so ready an instrument for the employing school were she a “called” teacher. Such, in the complex terms and hunches of the church body in question, would have been a protection against such dismissal. She has sued. Enter the EEOC.
When I said, “it’s complicated,” I meant it’s really complicated, as all these cases are. Notable constitutional and Court scholar Michael W. McConnell sided simply with the church which sponsors the school, with a Wall Street Journal editorial, headlined somewhat polemically, “Washington Wants a Say Over Your Minister.” Should it be put that way? Well, “it’s complicated.
”In the half year ahead citizens will have plenty of opportunity to read contradictory testimonies on many aspects of the case. Already, interested parties are on hand trying to determine what percentage of her time did Ms. Perich devote herself to “secular” subjects and what to “sacred” or religious ones. Further complicating things: get Lutherans to define Lutheranly what is “secular” and what is “sacred.” And then, dear Court, decide how much is too much or too little, on either side. Oh, to complicate things, work your way through the plot to find out what such Lutherans mean by “ministers” to get this case adjudicated with the now-traditional “ministerial exception” in view. One could pursue the issues and find that almost all reflect ambiguities and apparently mutually contradictory elements. Yet justice should be done, or aspired to.
So why follow the case, if we have little more to observe and say than “it’s complicated”? In a time of extremism, of over-simplification and noise among the polarized leaders, participants, and commentators, an awareness of complexity may be helpful. Hosanna to Hosanna-Tabor for forcing this not-simple exercise on citizens.