A Missouri court ruling in favor of a Catholic diocese protects the right of religious institutions to fire ministerial employees who do not live consistently with their religious beliefs.

“This ruling rightly preserves the integrity of churches and religious institutions,” Jeremiah Galus, legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, told CNA March 2. “If churches are forced to employ people who do not follow their religious teachings, they will no longer be able to minister consistently or freely in accordance with their faith.”

Galus was responding to a court ruling that the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is free to make ministerial employment decisions without government interference and did not violate any laws by terminating employment of a woman in a same-sex marriage.

“Churches should have the right to hire and fire people based on how consistently they live out their religious beliefs. If an employee is undermining or publicly opposing the church’s teaching, the church is within its constitutional rights to terminate employment,” Galus said.

In May 2014, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph terminated employment of Colleen Simon as director for social ministries at St. Francis Xavier Parish after she was featured in Kansas City Star’s 816 Magazine with her legal wife.

The diocese said that Simon’s same-sex marriage conflicted with Catholic Church teaching and she could no longer continue to minister in her role.  

Two months later, Simon filed a lawsuit against the diocese, claiming the diocese knew she was a lesbian before hiring her in 2013 and that the new pastor of the church was also aware. She also claimed that the diocese “fraudulently” misled her to believe that her sexuality would not adversely affect her job.

However, according to a brief filed by Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of the diocese, Simon was “fully aware that same-sex conduct could be an issue.”

“Having worked in various Diocese churches, she would have been aware of the ‘Church laws, discipline, and teaching, and the diocesan Policy on Ethics and Integrity in Ministry’ to which the Diocese adhered,” the brief states.

Last month, the Jackson County Circuit Court dismissed Simon’s fraud claim and ruled that courts must respect the First Amendment of churches and are not allowed to interfere with church practices and doctrine.

“The First Amendment does not preclude the court’s involvement in church disputes where the issue is one which deals purely with a religiously neutral civil law. Courts may exercise jurisdiction in disputes having no issues of religious doctrine, policy and practice so long as courts utilize a neutral principles-of-law approach and judges do not become entangled in questions which are essentially religious,” the decision states.

Galus said the court was not side-tracked by the plaintiff’s claim of fraud and reaffirmed U.S. Supreme Court precedent on this issue.

“This decision reaffirms a principle that the U.S. Supreme Court already established in Hosanna-Tabor, where the court unanimously ruled that federal discrimination laws do not apply to religious organizations regarding the hiring of religious leaders,” he said.

“The other side unsuccessfully tried to circumvent the ministerial exception by claiming fraud, when in reality, they were challenging the church’s decision to fire the plaintiff based on her lifestyle and her ministerial role.”

Travis Weber, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, said this ruling has far-reaching implications not just for churches but for all Americans.

“It is impermissible for the government to interfere in religious affairs. If it did, we would have an authoritarian state that would abolish religious freedom,” Weber told CNA.

“Churches, as well as private individuals, should be allowed to publicly affirm and live out their religious beliefs without government interference. Every American should support this,” he said.

“The government cannot dictate what churches or citizens should or should not believe. Thankfully, the court rightly ruled that the First Amendment prohibits this kind of authoritarian government rule.”

Weber also said that churches face a growing threat to their religious freedom because of a philosophical shift in the culture and changes in non-discrimination laws.  

“Philosophically there has been a shift in our culture, which can be seen most prominently on college campuses, that rejects a biblical and traditional understanding of marriage, human sexuality and gender,” Weber said.   

“Churches face a growing threat to their religious freedom because they maintain this biblical worldview. These threats are coming under non-discrimination laws, which thanks to the Obama administration now include sexual orientation and gender identity,” Weber explained.

He said that churches need knowledge and legal resources to thwart potential threats.

“Churches must be aware of these issues and when faced with a situation like in Kansas, must seek good legal counsel. This is the best way to ward off potential threats and protect their First Amendment freedoms,” Weber said.

“The reality is that churches and individuals are going to believe and live different things, and that is a good thing — not a source of contention or litigation. That is what democracy and America is all about.”

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