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Landmark Supreme Court ruling a 'resounding win' for religious groups

The Supreme Court decides unanimously that the First Amendment bars government interference in a religious group's decision to fire a minister. Critics say the ruling protects religious groups that fire people for the most venal reasons.

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In an important decision affirming the separation of church and state and the freedom of religious groups to manage their own affairs, the US Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that religious organizations are shielded from discrimination lawsuits filed by members who are engaged in ministerial functions.

In a unanimous decision, the high court said the First Amendment bars government interference in the authority of a religious group to determine for itself who will minister to the faithful.

At issue was whether a parochial school teacher fired by the Lutheran congregation that ran her school, could bring a discrimination lawsuit against the church.

After determining that the teacher performed significant religious duties and thus qualified as a minister, the court found that the employment relationship between church and minister was off limits to the government and to the courts.

If the church is free to select its ministers, the court reasoned, it must also be free without government interference to fire those the church deems unworthy to be ministers.

The decision marks the first time the high court has recognized a so-called “ministerial exception,” although every federal appeals court has upheld such an exception.

“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. “But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.”

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