How would you like the federal government to help decide which men and women in your faith community are worthy to be ordained or have their ordination rescinded? This nightmarish possibility could actually become reality, depending on the outcome of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, a case now before the United States Supreme Court.
This week’s controversy takes us to an elementary school in Michigan that probably looks like millions of schools across our nation, with children’s artwork on the walls, kids working on their times tables and maybe still practicing cursive writing. This particular school is operated by a Lutheran Church that hired a teacher named Cheryl Perich, who they also ordained. Although the Rev. Perich taught the same kind of classes any teacher might teach she also led chapel and led students in prayer.
Sometime during the school year Ms. Perich got ill enough to need to take a leave of absence and she was replaced by a substitute. When she sought to return mid-year, the school told her it was no longer possible. There were threats of a lawsuit and probably some harsh words, and then — and this is the kicker for this story — the church decided to rescind Ms. Perich’s ordination, therefore stripping her of the requirement necessary to lead chapel.
The now-former clergyperson sued the church and school under a clause in the Americans with Disabilities Act with support in her quest from the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC). And representatives of the Obama administration are asking the Supreme Court to set aside the church’s right to strip Ms. Perich of her ordination, arguing that employment law should prevail.
The outcry from religious groups across this country has been almost unanimous in asking the Supreme Court to rule in favor of the church. Even disparate groups that disagree on practically everything else agree that the First Amendment to the Constitution draws a line between government involvement in religion, a line that, although wavy through the centuries, has kept government and religion fairly clearly separated.
Surely the government does not wish to become involved in who the church can ordain or defrock! From long experience in the United Methodist Church, I have learned that ordination issues are incredibly difficult and complex, even when we understand our own jargon. Ordination is one of the most important things a church can do, and as arcane as some of our rules can be, we don’t need or want any help from the government on this issue.
On the face of it, the decision of the Michigan Lutheran church to withdraw Ms. Perich’s ordination seems like a sneaky, backdoor method of trying to resolve the issue in their favor. But even if so, that’s beside the point. Faith communities must remain independent when it comes to matters of ordination. There are many valid roles for government. Ordination isn’t one of them.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.