The wall separating church and state has two sides: It prevents government from underwriting religion, but it also shields religion from government interference. A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court appropriately clarified this week that government cannot tell religious institutions how to hire or fire employees who serve a religious function. Now in Florida, voters should be wary of another attack on that wall and reject an effort to amend Florida's Constitution to allow taxpayer money to flow to religious groups.
Giving religion special protection was the intent of the U.S. Constitution's religion clauses. The Establishment Clause keeps government from meddling in religious affairs and forcing taxpayers to support a faith to which they don't subscribe. The Free Exercise Clause gives religious entities the freedom to shape their own faith. This includes the right to choose leaders without regard to antidiscrimination laws. Otherwise, for instance, the Catholic faith that bars women from the priesthood would be constrained from its mission.
This special status was acknowledged in Hosanna-Tabor Church vs. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The justices ruled unanimously that the Constitution requires a "ministerial exception" to antidiscrimination laws, giving religious institutions the ability to hire and fire without being second-guessed by government.
Cheryl Perich, a teacher at a Lutheran school, was fired after she pursued a disability discrimination claim based on narcolepsy. But in barring her claim, the justices said Perich was essentially a minister. She was a "called" teacher, not a "lay" teacher, and her duties included teaching religion and attending chapel with her students.
By giving religion a pass to hire and fire on a discriminatory basis, the court affirmed the legal separation between the religious and secular. Florida voters should keep this in mind come November.
A state constitutional amendment will likely be on the ballot that abrogates 125 years of strict church-state separation. The "Religious Freedom" amendment is an attempt to confuse voters into voting yes. After all, who could be against religious freedom? But the proposed amendment subverts religious freedom by requiring taxpayers to fund religious institutions they may not support. (The measure was taken off the ballot after a legal challenge, but a judge is expected to return it there soon.) The state Constitution says that no state funds will be used to "directly or indirectly" aid religious institutions. The amendment would strip that protection, preventing the state from denying funding because a group is a religious entity.
Some religious groups want it both ways. They demand the constitutional right to hire and fire their leaders without state interference. But when it comes to funding private school vouchers, for example, they want taxpayer money to flow into their religious schools.
History suggests that it is far better for religion and for taxpayers if clearer lines are maintained. Yes, religious groups should be left to choose ministers using any criteria they wish — even biased ones. But they shouldn't expect the government to support those decisions with the public's money.