Courts frequently dismiss cases against religious institutions because they mistakenly believe the First Amendment prevents them from intruding on religious employment disputes. They have invented a "ministerial exemption" that prevents religious lawsuits from being heard by a jury.
Consider the case of Madeline Weishuhn, a mathematics and religion teacher at St. Mary's Elementary School in Mount Morris, Michigan. According to the opinion dismissing her lawsuit, Weishuhn’s contract was not renewed after the 2005-06 school year “after a series of employment-related incidents, none of which involved the subject of religion.” The incidents are not described.
Weishuhn is representative of what happens in ministerial exemption cases. The facts are not developed because the cases are dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. If the events at St. Mary’s Elementary School did not “involve the subject of religion,” then they should be considered in the courtroom, by a jury.
Michigan newspapers and Weishuhn’s attorney revealed the facts. A student told Weishuhn that a student from another school was being abused by her father. Weishuhn reported the information to the authorities as the Michigan statute about reporting child abuse requires and was fired for doing so. The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that a parochial school teacher is not protected against retaliatory dismissal and the state’s Supreme Court refused review. According to Weishuhn’s lawyer, “I cautioned [the court], if you're going to [apply the ministerial exception to this case], be very careful because you certainly have to provide protection for these [employees] who are compelled to report under the law and are subject to retaliation, . . . What they are saying is that my client doesn't even have protection for that.”
The appeals court demonstrated the misinterpretation of the First Amendment that plagues the courts, commenting that although “it seems unjust that employees of religious institutions can be fired without recourse for reporting illegal activities, particularly given that members of the clergy, as well as teachers, are mandated reporters. . . . to conclude otherwise would result in pervasive violations of First Amendment protections.” In other words, churches enjoy constitutional freedom to retaliate against employees who report sex abuse, even though the law requires sex abuse reporting, and even though Weishuhn was a teacher (not a minister) who did not violate Catholic teaching.
The larger background to this story is the worldwide sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, in which at least 15,235 victims have been acknowledged by the church in the United States while others estimate that 100,000 victims were involved. Sexual scandals have hit other religious denominations, large and small, in numbers still unknown. If women’s and children’s rights are to be protected, the courts and the law must be on the side of the whistleblowers and not on the side of church autonomy to break the law. The courts need to start enforcing employment laws against religious institutions.