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Sunday, June 16, 2024 | Back issues
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Courts Can’t Intercede in Church’s Firing Choices

(CN) - A narcoleptic teacher cannot sue the parochial school that fired her because her claims fall under the ministerial exception to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

Cheryl Perich had worked at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich., between 1999 and 2004. As a "called" teacher, meaning that she belonged to the teaching ministry of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the school could not dismiss Perich without cause.

Before being diagnosed with narcolepsy in June 2004, Perich was assigned to teach third and fourth grades. She took a leave of absence for the 2004-05 school year but planned to return to work in late February 2005, at which point her doctor said she would become stabilized to medication.

Though the doctor said Perich would be fully functional with the assistance of medication, Hosanna-Tabor tried to force Perich to resign and claimed school board members were concerned that Perich would be unable to supervise students throughout the entire day.

Perich refused to resign and said she would pursue legal action unless the school could work out a compromise. A month later the school fired Perich for insubordination and disruptive behavior. After Perich notified the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2005 that the school had discriminated and retaliated against her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the EEOC filed suit on her behalf.

The Eastern District of Michigan awarded summary judgment to Hosanna-Tabor in 2008, finding that Perich's claims fell within the "ministerial exception" to the ADA, but the 6th Circuit vacated the award in March 2010.

Although Perich belonged to the teaching ministry, the federal appeals panel found that Perich's primary duties as a teacher were not religious in nature, as required to justify designation as a ministerial employee.

"The fact that Perich participated in and led some religious activities throughout the day does not make her primary function religious," the unanimous 6th Circuit decision states. "This is underscored by the fact that teachers were not required to be called or even Lutheran to conduct these religious activities, and at least one teacher at Hosanna-Tabor was not Lutheran."

But the Supreme Court found otherwise on Wednesday, agreeing with the school that the First Amendment barred Perich's suit since the claims at issue concern the employment relationship between a religious institution and one of its ministers.

Hosana-Tabor claims that Perich was a minister, and she had been fired for a religious reason - namely, that her threat to sue the church vio­lated the Synod's belief that Christians should resolve their disputes internally," according to the high court's summary.

"The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the unanimous court. "Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment deci­sion. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By impos­ing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the free exercise clause, which protects a religious group's right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According the state the power to determine which individ­uals will minister to the faithful also violates the estab­lishment clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions."

After affirming the existence of the ministerial exception, the justices agreed that the exception covers Perich and rebuked the federal appeals court for finding otherwise.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a separate concurring opinion to emphasize that civil courts should "defer to a reli­gious organization's good-faith understanding of who qualifies as its minister."

In a second concurring opinion, Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan clarified the matter further since "the term 'minister' is commonly used by many Protestant denominations to refer to members of their clergy, but the term is rarely if ever used in this way by Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hin­dus, or Buddhists."

"Because virtually every religion in the world is represented in the population of the United States, it would be a mistake if the term 'minister' or the concept of ordination were viewed as central to the im­portant issue of religious autonomy that is presented incases like this one," Alito wrote. "Instead, courts should focus on the function performed by persons who work for religious bodies."

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