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High Court to Consider Church’s ADA Liability

(CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to review an employment dispute between a narcoleptic teacher and the parochial school that fired her.

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 taking ill 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 for narcolepsy.

Though a doctor said that 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 able to supervise students throughout the entire day.

Perich refused to resign and said she pursue legal action unless the school could work out a compromise, and 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."

As is its custom, the Supreme Court did not comment in its decision to take up the school's appeal. It did grant several religious institutions leave to file briefs as amici curaie.

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