483 U. S. 327
June 24, 1987
A gymnasium run by a Mormon non-profit decided to fire an employee because he was not in good standing with the LDS church. A 1972 law allowed religiously affiliated organizations to freely hire or fire on the basis of religion, but the fired gym employee challenged this law, arguing that it violated the Establishment Clause’s Lemon test. By giving religious organizations this power, the law allegedly had the effect of advancing religion.
A five Justice majority upheld the law against the Lemon test challenge. White wrote that exempting religious bodies from generally applicable laws had long been held a neutral and secular governmental purpose. More to the point, a law which grants churches more autonomy does not “advance” religion, because in subsequent proceedings the church is the actor rather than any agent of the government. Finally, White affirmed that laws affording special exemptions to the religious were not unconstitutionally discriminatory against the non-religious.
The other four Justices concurred in judgment that the firing was valid. Brennan, joined by Marshall, said that he would find a bright line rule exempting religious non-profits from judicial scrutiny in religious discrimination cases, due to the difficulty courts might have in understanding religious doctrines. Nonetheless, he hinted that but for this judicial abstention, he might find the law unconstitutional, as it allowed for religion-based firing of employees with purely secular job duties. In a similar concurrence, O’Connor expressed qualms about the majority opinion’s broad statement that a law which left all action to the churches did not “advance” religion. Blackmun said he agreed with most of O’Connor’s opinion.
The voting alignment truly shocked me. Usually, it’s Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and O’Connor who are more sensitive to protecting religious freedom. Ultimately, it seems they sympathize most with the single private individual in religion cases. Here, they felt that the fired employee’s freedom of religion was being unduly coerced by the LDS church. On the flip side, it was downright surreal to see Stevens provide the fifth vote for White’s opinion, especially since many of its strong statements seem directly contrary to what Stevens wrote back in Ansonia. A win’s a win, so I’ll take it – I don’t say this often, but good job Stevens!
Overvaluing individual autonomy has been an enduring theme in American history. Human history too, going all the way back to the beginning. In Genesis 3, the serpent tells Adam and Eve to reject God’s authority, and use their own private religious judgments to decide how to live their lives. And so it goes today – there are countless instances like this one of individuals flatly rejecting church teachings, and then acting outraged when they are fired or excommunicated as a result. People forget that submission to authority is one of the highest values in religion. “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done” – Luke 22:42.