News and Notes

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

The Supreme Court opened the new year by issuing a landmark ruling on the separation of Church and State. In a unanimous ruling in the case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, SCOTUS found for the first time that the Constitution requires a “ministerial exception” that protects the personnel decisions of churches and their schools from interference from the government and its courts.

The case began in 2004 when Cheryl Perich took a medical leave from her position as a teacher at the Hosanna Tabor Lutheran School for a chronic illness. When her leave was over the school did not allow her to return to work, so Perich claimed a violation of her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission affirmed Perich’s claim, so the church sued. After the school lost in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court agreed to take up the case.

Lower courts have long recognized a ministerial exception, but this ruling extends this shield to teachers at parochial schools. It does not, however, define exactly which teachers are “ministers.” The Appeals Court ruled that most of Perich’s work involved teaching secular subjects such as reading and math, and only 45 minutes of her school day involved religious activities such as chapel services. The majority opinion by Chief Justice Roberts held that the decision about her employment “is the church’s alone.” A concurring opinion by Justices Alito and Kagan held that the application of a ministerial exemption “should apply to any ‘employee’ who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.” The danger in this ruling is that parochial schools might now start including some ritual observance to the work of all teachers, and thereby deprive them of any job protections.

This is not the only court ruling in January in support of the Free Exercise Clause. Do you remember the Oklahoma referendum in 2010 on the so-called “Save Our State” constitutional amendment to prohibit the imposition of Sharia law? It was approved by 70% of Oklahoma voters, even though there was already no possibility of the adoption of Islamic Law.

The amendment was challenged in court by the Oklahoma Council for American-Islamic Relations and the American Civil Liberties Union. Friend-of-the-court briefs against the amendment were filed by such diverse groups as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Center for Islamic Pluralism, the Interfaith Alliance and the Union for Reform Judaism.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled unanimously against the amendment. “Appellants do not identify any actual problem the challenged amendment seeks to solve,” wrote Judge Scott M. Matheson. “Indeed, they admitted at the preliminary injunction hearing that they did not know of even a single instance where an Oklahoma court had applied Sharia law or used the legal precepts of other nations or cultures, let alone that such applications or uses had resulted in concrete problems in Oklahoma.”

The purpose of the amendment was just to officially vilify Islam.

A bill that would require public schools to teach intelligent design creationism, HB1227, has been submitted to Missouri’s legislature. The bill is an astonishing pastiche of factual and logical errors, but it is fun to read it through just for the exercise of refuting it. You can read the text of the bill HERE and marvel at the ignorance it embodies.

Not long ago the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy foisted a hoax on the state of Minnesota, getting a charter for an Islamic school under the pretext of an Arabic language immersion secular education. Now Highland Park, New Jersey is experiencing the nearly identical fraud, from Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School. The deception and fraud in the school’s applications for charter and grants is appalling, yet the school has been awarded a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

To give the appearance of this not being a specifically Jewish school, they claimed on their charter application that the location of the school would be a Catholic church, St. Mary of Mount Virgin in the neighboring town of New Brunswick. The Catholic Bishop denied that there was any such agreement, and insisted that there never would be. Yet the same lie appeared on later grant applications. The school claimed on its application to have a relationship with the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, but the museum denied that. The school also claimed to have good relations with local community groups and stated its intent to build a diverse student body. The groups named denied any such relationship, and scoffed at the implication that low-income black, Puerto Rican and Muslim children would be interested in a Hebrew immersion education.

Even local rabbi Steven Miodownik wrote to New Jersey’s Education Commission “Proponents of the Hebrew language charter school have carefully placed a fig leaf over their agenda of forcing the state to fund their ‘free’ alternative to private Jewish education, but it is not the job of the State of New Jersey to provide religious instruction for its children; that must be left up to our excellent private schools.”

The State of New Jersey seems to have seen through the school’s lies, but the U. S. Department of Education is forbidden to verify claims in an application or to use any outside information in its grant decisions. This is intended to ensure that no special measures are taken to either favor or hinder an applicant, but it invites fraud. The federal grant, however, is conditional upon the school receiving a state charter. On January 20 the charter application was denied for the 4th time.

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