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US Supreme Court discusses all-male Catholic priesthood

October 07, 2011

In argument before the Supreme Court on an anti-discrimination case, the solicitor general—representing the Obama administration—said that the government would uphold the right of the Catholic Church to preserve an all-male priesthood, but only “because the balance of relative public and private interests is different in each case.”

The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, in which a woman charged that she was wrongfully dismissed from a teaching position at a Lutheran school. School officials countered that the teacher had been dismissed because she did not accept the teachings of the church. The case turned on the “ministerial exception” that is traditionally according to religious bodies, allowing them to set the standards for their own religious personnel.

Leodra Kruger, making the case for the solicitor general, questioned the “ministerial exception” directly. When questioned by Chief Justice John Roberts on whether religious groups should have the right to judge the qualifications of their own key employees, she replied: “We don't see that line of church autonomy principles in the religion clause jurisprudence as such.”

When Justice Stephen Breyer pressed the issue, asking specifically whether the Catholic Church should be allowed to bar women from the priesthood, Kruger replied: “The government's general interest in eradicating discrimination in the workplace is simply not sufficient to justify changing the way that the Catholic Church chooses its priests, based on gender roles that are rooted in religious doctrine.” But by casting her legal argument in terms of the government’s interests, rather than the unchanging language of the First Amendment, she left open the possibility that at some future date, under different circumstances, the government could side with women seeking ordination as Catholic priests.

Several justices expressed qualms about Kruger’s legal reasoning during the oral arguments. When they eventually issue a ruling on the Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC case, the Supreme Court justices may reject the solicitor general’s logic and affirm the “ministerial exception.” But their decision could also making Hosanna a landmark case in the interpretation of the First Amendment—and in the Church’s defense of the all-male priesthood.


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  • Posted by: - Oct. 11, 2011 8:58 AM ET USA

    I think the questions from the Justices quite critical. If government declares that a Lutheran church must hire or retain employees regardless of conflicts of belief, there's no reason it won't force Catholics to tolerate ordaining women. In both cases, government dictates much of what faithful people may believe and what they may not. The solicitor's response chills me. I wonder how long it'll be before distributing Communion properly becomes some kind of discrimination.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 08, 2011 8:18 PM ET USA

    Employment Division v Smith was Q disastrous decision. It needs to be reversed.

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Oct. 08, 2011 6:01 PM ET USA

    The phrase "there is not sufficient interest in the government changing the way the Catholic Church chooses its priests" suggests that at some point sufficient interest might exist. Excuse me, but this is the USA, not medieval England. The government can't do that in this country and Justice Breyer's comment is an insult. Fortunately, he is only one voice and we're lucky the Catholic majority on the SC won't ever try sticking its nose in church affairs.

  • Posted by: BLRallo3059 - Oct. 08, 2011 2:50 PM ET USA

    What in the world was Chief Justice Roberts trying to accomplish with that question? A Catholic, is he? He's opened the door and the anti-discrimination folks will drive a bus through it.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 08, 2011 10:55 AM ET USA

    If the Obama admin. wanted to get rid of the Constitution, at least I would feel that I know what their direction is. But this admin. is so incompetent and uses arrogance to compensate for that. Incompetence frightens me more. They pretend to be on point but are hopelessly lost. Their lack of a moral core is vividly obvious.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Oct. 07, 2011 7:06 PM ET USA

    The radicals hold so many positions in this administration that I would not be surprised to see them argue "for" women in such a case. Another case of the inmates running the asylum.

  • Posted by: Chestertonian - Oct. 07, 2011 6:23 PM ET USA

    Further proof the Obama administration wishes to tear up the Constitution and bring in socialism. Everyone is at risk, not just the Catholic church. If the Constitution goes, no one will have any rights but those granted by fiat, that could be taken away again just as easily.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Oct. 07, 2011 6:09 PM ET USA

    We Catholics are eventually going to be in the position of the Jews during Our Lord's time on earth. They were under the thumb of Rome, and lived in fear of offending it. Will we have the courage to follow His Church,even to bankruptcy or death? Satan's ways are ever devious.