Church Autonomy after Our Lady of Guadalupe School: Too Broad? Or as Broad as it Needs to Be?


In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru (Guadalupe), the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment preserve a broad right of church autonomy. The breadth of Guadalupe’s church autonomy doctrine respecting religious institutions’ personnel decisions in particular, is potentially remarkable. It is, however, also required given the empirical evidence about the crucial role personal witness plays in preserving and promoting religious beliefs and norms. At the same time, Guadalupe’s church autonomy doctrine poses potentially dangerous incentives and consequences, threatening both the doctrine and religious institutions. This Article will examine these matters as follows: Part I will detail the breadth of Guadalupe’s church autonomy doctrine. Part II will attend to potentially narrower readings of the doctrine suggested by the majority opinion, especially the prospect that its application might be limited to teachers directly charged to transmit the faith. It concludes, however, that severe limitations are unlikely.

Parts III and IV propose that Guadalupe’s church autonomy doctrine is no broader than it needs to be respecting religions’ freedom to appoint personnel. Part III examines religious teaching about the role of personnel in preserving and communicating an institution’s faith, doctrine, and mission. Part IV reviews a body of empirical research indicating the dispositive role played by personal witness toward preserving and communicating religious beliefs and norms. This literature—variously published in the fields of “social influence” theory and the psychology and sociology of religion—confirms the practical wisdom of religions’ theologically-based personnel policy: to staff their institutions with persons whose beliefs and conduct strengthen the community’s witness to its faith and mission, by communicating to others the plausibility and even attractiveness of the religious mission(s). If Guadalupe means to allow religions to effectively govern their own “faith and doctrine,” including its transmission, then this empirical literature strongly indicates that the state will have to leave religions a wide berth of freedom to choose their own personnel.

Part V considers future threats to a broad church autonomy doctrine, and recommendations to counter these. The Guadalupe dissenters highlight fears that religious institutions will abuse their roles as employers and courts will abdicate their judicial responsibilities to determine the applicability of the church autonomy doctrine. Both of these errors can be avoided.