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Married to the Church: Potential Implications of Obergefell in the Context of Religious Discrimination

October 15, 2015

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Obergefell v. Hodges[1] may have far-reaching implications in the world of religious organizations opposed to same-sex marriage. While the 5-4 decision applies only to the various states and their instrumentalities (as one such Kentucky woman recently learned), it may not be long before litigants attempt to use it as a wedge to open the door to attack perceived discrimination by religious organizations. This would indeed be a steep hill to climb, given the long-established protections afforded to religious organizations in matters of ecclesiastical governance. However, it is not outside of the realm of possibility given the recent gains of the LBGT community in matters of civil rights and equal protection. 

Consider the following scenario: A minister, who is not opposed to same-sex marriage, decides to honor the request of his “same-sex couple” parishioners to perform their marriage ceremony. Following the ceremony, the higher-ups in the hierarchal system decide that the minister must be excommunicated for overseeing the ceremony. Following the ex-communication, the minister sues the religious organization for discrimination or breach of contract (if indeed there is an employment contract). 

Perhaps, rather, the minister is the one engaged in a same-sex relationship, and decides to get married, obtaining a valid and legitimate marriage license from the new Rowan County Clerk in Kentucky. Of course, news travels fast, and the minister is quickly terminated. Recognizing that he exercised his fundamental right in getting married, the minister files a discrimination suit against the religious organization. 

Given the limited scope of Obergefell, and the also somewhat recent Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C.,[2] it is unlikely that the Plaintiff in the above-referenced scenarios would prevail. In Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court recognized the ministerial exception, grounded in the First Amendment, which precludes application of Title VII and other employment discrimination laws to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers. However, it does not take much imagination to see the potential litigation on the horizon, given the reinforcement of the fundamental right to marriage espoused in the Obergefell decision.

[1] 135 S. Ct. 2584 (June 26, 2015).

[2] 132 S. Ct. 694 (January 11, 2012).