First Amendment Fantasy: Catholic Diocese Claims To Be Outside The Authority Of Federal Courts

If a court were to accept the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese’s argument, it would open the door to the idea that religious organizations are immune from prosecution and most laws.

It finally happened – a church has claimed that U.S. courts have no jurisdiction over it because of its “religious freedom” rights.     

This was inevitable. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which said secular, for-profit corporations have the right to make highly personal medical decisions for their employees based purely on religious dogma, corporations are trying to see just how much freedom they’ve acquired. Given these sweeping new rights granted by – perhaps ironically – a federal court, it was only a matter of time before religious groups would get in on the act and test the limits of the Hobby Lobby decision for themselves.

This rather startling claim that courts don’t have any jurisdiction over a church grew out of a case brought by a former Catholic school teacher who was fired for trying in-vitro fertilization. In 2012, Emily Herx, then an English teacher at St. Vincent de Paul School in Fort Wayne, Ind., was terminated just two weeks after she requested time off for the procedure. (A monsignor reportedly called Herx a “grave, immoral sinner.”)

Herx sued the school and the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, claiming gender discrimination. Mother Jones noted that religious organizations are exempt from most anti-discrimination laws when it comes to hiring and firing, but gender discrimination is not protected – even for houses of worship.

Herx’s attorneys even provided evidence that the school has never fired a male teacher for using infertility treatment, so she may have a good case – even though the diocese countered that it would fire a man who used such treatments.

But seemingly just to cover all its bases, the diocese came up with a brazen and radical argument: its representatives should not even have to show up in court because courts can’t uphold “religious freedom” if they have the right to tell religious organizations what to do!

“[If] the diocese is required to go through a trial,” it would “irrevocably” deny the diocese religious protections, the church’s attorneys argued.

Ah, the old “persecution” defense. An employment discrimination lawsuit is hardly persecution, and this matter is not a justification for a church to essentially claim that no one has the right to challenge anything it does.

The irony is, the church can probably win this case without even going down this road. Courts have generally allowed religious schools to hire and fire as they see fit. It’s one thing to ask a court to uphold that right; it’s quite another to assert that an aggrieved party should have no power to take you to court and make his or her best case.

“What the diocese is saying is, ‘We can fire anybody, and we have absolute immunity from even going to trial, as long as we think they’re violating our religion,’” Brian Hauss, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told Mother Jones. “And to have civil authorities even look into what we’re doing is a violation.’…It’s astonishing.”

Another ACLU attorney suggested that the church is wandering down a dangerous road.

“It’s an unusual and extreme argument, to be saying the court doesn’t even have the legal authority to ask whether this was, in fact, sex discrimination,” said Louise Melling, a deputy legal director at the ACLU. “I can’t imagine they would prevail on that. It’s too extreme.”

If a court were to accept the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese’s argument, it would open the door to the idea that religious organizations are immune from prosecution and most laws. They would be able to act with near impunity under the guise that “religious freedom” can only be preserved if religious organizations are totally free from any legal limitations or outside interference.

That is, of course, complete nonsense. It’s also an incredibly frightening possibility. It seems unlikely that a court would ever agree with the diocese’s argument, but should a court rule in the church’s favor, Hobby Lobby could one day seem like a fond memory.