ReligionClause recently reported some good news out of New Zealand. The Human Rights Tribunal there ruled against a discrimination charge by a man who was denied ordination in the Anglican Church because he was engaged in homosexual behavior. Eugene Sisneros filed a lawsuit claiming that the Bishop of Auckland discriminated against him in violation of the New Zealand Human Rights Act. The conflict came about because of the Church’s doctrine on chastity for those desiring to enter the priesthood:
To be ordained as a priest or deacon of the Anglican Church… a person must… “be chaste”. Chastity is defined by the Canons of the Church as “the right ordering of sexual relationships”. Such relationships can only occur within a Christian marriage which is defined by the Formularies as a physical and spiritual union of a man and a woman…. Thus a person seeking to enter the ordained ministry of the Anglican Church must either be single and celibate or in a heterosexual marriage.
Sisneros admitted he was involved in a homosexual relationship and claimed in the lawsuit that the Bishop’s denial of his ordination amounted to discrimination on the basis of marital status and sexual orientation.
The New Zealand Human Rights Tribunal held that the Anglican Church was exempt from the Human Rights Act because of its status as a Church. The Tribunal held that the law contained an exemption for churches that was intended to “preserve the institutional autonomy of organised religions in relation to their decisions concerning the appointment of clergy and ministers.” The Tribunal noted that Sisneros’ claim would “entirely negate that purpose.” If Sisneros was allowed to pursue his claim,
“The Anglican Church would be required to ordain priests who taught that the right ordering of sexual relationships can only occur within a Christian marriage (defined by the Formularies as a physical and spiritual union of a man and a woman) but who themselves did not ‘live’ that doctrine. Ministers would not be exemplars, nor would they be bound by submission to the Constitution of the Church or by their declaration of allegiance to its doctrine and Formularies. This would undermine in the most fundamental way the religious autonomy of the Church, its right to be selective about those who will serve as the very embodiment of its message and its voice to the faithful.”
The Human Rights tribunal got this decision right. Although it may be surprising that a person engaged in an active homosexual relationship would attempt to use the rule of law to force the Anglican Church to accept him as a priest, these types of claims may become more common in the future. Many countries, and almost every State in the United States have some form of “anti-discrimination” law that includes protection based on the categories of “sexual orientation” or “gender identity.” These laws have remained largely dormant until now. If these laws are used against churches, then the autonomy of the Church is most certainly in jeopardy.
The New Zealand Human Rights tribunal acknowledged the strong precedent of church autonomy. This basically means that churches have the right to make their own decisions, especially in relation to the selection, credentialing, and firing of ministers. The United States also has a strong history of protecting church autonomy. The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged this autonomy in the selection of ministers in its decision in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. In fact, the New Zealand Human Rights Tribunal cited that case in its opinion.
The overarching point is that a church has the right to decide who its ministers will be and government cannot and should not interfere with that decision. The New Zealand Human Rights Tribunal ended its opinion with this quote:
First, to determine whether issues of race, sex, or sexual orientation are not “truly” religious or freighted with theological meaning is to embroil the courts in decisions they lack competence to decide. But the greater concern is not the comparative competency point. Rather, it is that this sort of issue is simply not the state’s business. We adhere to a strong version of religious group autonomy. Religious bodies have the right to reject candidates for ministry or discipline or expel an existing pastoral minister even if the grounds for doing so appear to liberals (and others) to be archaic, illiberal, or bigoted. The grounds for selection or dismissal are matters within the province of the religious community, and it alone, to decide.
Alliance Defending Freedom is working hard to protect the autonomy of the Church. The Church Team’s mission is to protect the right of the Church to be free to minister the Gospel without legal restriction or hindrance. That includes the ability of your church to select and control its own ministers without interference from the government.