(Catholic Culture) 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.