A fairly strong case could be made that the principle of church-state separation was dramatically reaffirmed by the Supreme Court this week.
Not that this principle itself was directly at stake.
None of the justices, as far as I can tell, appealed to the First Amendment in reaching their decisions or in writing their opinions. None took sides on how to interpret the reference to religion in that important First Amendment.
That’s understandable, since neither Vance v. Ball State University et al. nor University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar had much to do directly with religion.
In Vance, the court ruled, by a 5-4 majority, that a food-service employee wasn’t discriminated against because the one from whom she took direction and who oversaw her work wasn’t technically her “supervisor.”
The court’s majority ruled that “only a person with authority to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline” meets the definition of a “supervisor.” So, even though the employee suffered racial harassment and discrimination at her work, the employer was off the hook.
In the Nassar case, the court determined, again by a 5-4 majority, that an employee (a physician, in this instance) couldn’t claim that he was being retaliated against in seeking a job because of his ethnicity and religion unless he could prove that the retaliation was “motivated” by such discriminatory factors.
Thus, the employer, again, was not responsible for the unjust retaliation.
So, what bearing does the principle of separation of church and state have in either of these two cases?
Only that all five of the justices in both cases are Roman Catholics (Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Roberts and Alito). The sixth Roman Catholic (Sotomayor) dissented.
And what, you ask, does that prove?
Well, the Roman Catholic Church has this strong and magnificent tradition in its social teachings of advocating for the dignity and rights of workers – a preferential option for labor, as it were – over against the forms and forces of capital and bureaucracy.
Regarding explicit support of labor, for workers and for economic justice generally, the Roman Catholic Church has far outpaced most of the Protestant churches and other Christian communions.
But, that rich tradition seems to have no impact whatsoever on those Roman Catholic justices who, when given a chance, decided to side with employers and buck provisions of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion) and the standard interpretation of the law by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Which just goes to show that these justices are very capable of separating their religious faith and its teachings from their important responsibilities as officers of the state.
Should those of us who are strong supporters of church-state separation be relieved?
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.