Religious "Ministerial Immunity", Individual Rights, Elementary Schoolchildren and American Democracy

By Michael Diederich posted 11-17-2016 08:32 PM


An interesting series of programs might address the tension between First Amendment's religion clauses and the rights of citizens (individually and collectively for democratic governance) in our State and Nation.  

1.  One program might address a topic I am getting familiar with:  “ministerial immunity” and the 2012 US Supreme Court Hosanna-Tabor case.  As I see the issue, if employers gain absolute immunity from civil lawsuits by being able to characterize their employees as “ministers” (even when neither ordained nor otherwise Church-selected for pastoral duties), individuals may lose their civil rights merely by deciding to work for a Church-affiliated entity).  Teachers and principals of parochial schools face ministerial immunity defenses.  But why not employees of Church-affiliated hospitals, colleges, graduate schools or Hobby Lobby-style for profit corporations?   Ministerial immunity means that if the employee is covered as a “minister,” the employer can fire for any reason, including for example, racial bias (or even put up a sign “no Blacks need apply”).

2. Another more limited program might focus on school children in parochial schools, yeshivas and the like.  Such schools are required to provide a required secular education.   However, if teachers and administrators must keep in line with religious dogma, or even indoctrinate the children (I think it’s euphemistically called evangelization), is this what our society (or the children’s parents, or the children) want.  I suspect that the Founding Fathers would want religion kept in the church, and not extended to the schools.  Frankly, I think the "Enlightenment Thinking" Founders would read science, and respect E.O. Wilson's views (see below).   As a veteran of  Iraq and Afghanistan, I see tribalism, and religious dogma, as huge threats in the future, and what children learn at home and in school is vitally important. 

3. A broad program might include broader issues describing tension between religious beliefs of one group, and the extent to which these can or cannot be imposed upon or restricted by the larger society.  E.g., can the local pharmacist refuse to sell a condom to a gay man, because this offends his religion? Can his employer fire him for it?  Can the gay customer sue both for it?

4.  Finally, another program might focus on evolutionary psychology and other scientific study of human nature, to illuminate us about how our instincts and human nature may affect our thinking.   Religion is tribal in nature, and evoke powerful biases and emotion.  I strongly recommend a very short book:  E.O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence, especially Chapters 13-14. We humans are tribal in our thinking, and thus scientific inquiry may also be useful in examining implicit bias (in our profession and elsewhere).  

       Mike Diederich

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