Saturday, April 28, 2012

Saturday Evening Review: The Missing Dissenting Opinion in Hosanna-Tabor by Professor Leslie Griffin

As a rule, there is something unsatisfying about a constitutional law opinion from the United States Supreme Court without a well-reasoned and scholarly dissent. 

The Court's opinion earlier this year in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC is no exception to that rule, despite a  short concurring opinion by Justice Thomas and the much longer concurring opinion by Justice Alito in which Justice Kagan joined.   The Court in Hosanna-Tabor recognized the so-called "ministerial exception" barring a lawsuit against a religious organization by an employee seeking relief pursuant to federal anti-discrimination laws, including the ADA.

LeslieGriffinProfessor Leslie Griffin supplies the necessary countervailing arguments in her forthcoming article The Sins of Hosanna-Tabor, available on ssrn.  Professor Griffin (pictured left) who co-authored the Brief of Amici Curiae Law and Religion Professors in Support of Respondents and who appeared at the AALS Conference panel discussing the case was well-situated to provide a quick and thorough analysis, with excellent research that is mostly absent from the Court's opinions. 

Griffin's critique of the case is insightful and pointed, discussing the factual context and reorienting it as a retaliation case, providing some useful historical perspectives, and seeking to reconcile the 1990 case of Employment Division v. Smith.  As Griffin argues, after Hosanna-Tabor, "Individual religious believers are subject to the rule of Smith, while institutions are not. Institutional religious freedom allows the firing of ministerial employees for any reasons, even non-religious ones."  This does seem incoherent, although as Griffin notes, the "rule always favors employers."  

The broad insulation of religious employers from anti-discrimination laws for anyone who is deemed a minister  is the import of Hosanna-Tabor.  While the Court declined to decide exactly who is a minister, the implication seems to be that this determination must rest on the sincere belief of the employer, lest there be Establishment Clause issues.  The Court also declined to express a view "on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers.”   Griffin uses her in depth knowledge of the area to explore the implications of this opening.

Griffin's article is worth reading for anyone teaching or writing about Hosanna-Tabor and should certainly be excerpted in Casebooks.   It's an important dissenting opinion.

RR

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