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Mixed Jewish Reaction to Ruling on Religious Preference in Hiring

American Jewish organizations voiced mixed reactions to a unanimous Supreme Court decision last week that non-profit religious institutions are not required to comply with the same anti-discrimination regulations as commercial employers.

The ruling came in response to a suit filed by Frank Mayson against the Mormon Church. The church fired Mayson, a building engineer in a Mormon community center, because the church did not regard him as sufficiently observant. The ruling asserted the right of religious institutions to favor adherents of their own faith for employment.

The court ruled that because a key purpose of the community center is to transmit church values, the center could be considered a religious institution exempted from anti-discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act. The decision upheld the constitutionality of a 1964 provision of the Civil Rights Act, which exempted sectarian institutions from the anti-discrimination requirements.

The American Jewish Congress filed an amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief in the case supporting the Mormon Church’s position. AJCongress president Theodore Mann praised the ruling.

“Today’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling … affords religious institutions the breathing room necessary for them to function,” Mann said. “One need not approve of any particular instance of discrimination to recognize that churches, synagogues and other religious institutions cannot be held to the same proscription on religious discrimination in employment as commercial or other for-profit employers.”

The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (ADL), which filed an amicus opposing the church’s position, denounced the ruling as “unfortunate.” The ADL took the position that the exemption to the federal legislation is unconstitutional.

Michael Schultz, chairman of the ADL National Civil Rights Committee, said, “Barring a person who is not a devout Mormon from employment in a ‘health and fitness club’ owned and operated by the Mormon Church — which charges the general public for admission and offers the facilities of a swimming pool, steamrooms, beauty shops and massage salons — is not consonant with the ideals of a pluralistic society.”

Schultz warned that religious institutions may use the decision as a “green light” for religious discrimination.

“While a church may certainly require that employees involved in its religious mission be fellow adherents, under the Court’s rationale, any sectarian ‘non-profit’ hospital, nursing home, motel, or even fast-food franchise may absolutely bar non-adherents or non-believers from employment,” Schultz said.

The American Jewish Committee did not take a stand before the ruling because, according to a Committee legal expert, the leadership was divided on the issue.

Richard Foltin, AJCommittee associate legal director, said, “We’re always pleased when the court gives weight to free exercise (of religious) concerns.” The decision followed a second landmark Supreme Court ruling on religious affairs last week which held that public schools could not teach scientific creationism, the religious theory of creation. The Mayson case demonstrates that the Constitution is not hostile to religious liberty but protects freedom of religion by separating religious practice from government.

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