Supreme Court to decide whether ministers avoid job lawsuits
Washington, DC, United States
September 16, 2011 02:10 pm EDT
Crime, Law And Justice, Laws, Civil, Crime, Law And Justice, Tribunal, Labor, Labor Dispute
The Supreme Court plans to hear arguments Oct. 5 in a case that could determine whether religious organizations avoid lawsuits that other employers cannot.
The dispute has arisen previously in the courts, usually with rulings that favor churches.
This time, the issue mixes jobs and religion in a way that blurs the line between the rights of churches and their employees.
The case involves a teacher at a Lutheran school in Redford, MI, who was fired after her disability allegedly interfered with her job. She claimed discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The school responded by arguing it was exempt from lawsuits under the “ministerial exception” that bans many lawsuits against clergy performing their religious duties.
Perich’s responsibilities that included religious guidance of students brought her under the exception, the school’s attorney said.
Allowing courts to intervene in the firing of a teacher at a religious school “would entangle the courts in the religious question of her fitness for ministry,” the school’s attorneys argue in their petition. “And it would result in the government dictating to the church who will teach its religious message. That result cannot be squared with the First Amendment.”
The case could have widespread implications for churches and church schools everywhere.
Court interpretations of the ministerial exception “agree that it extends beyond pastors, priests, and rabbis, but not as far as janitors or secretaries,” attorneys for the school say in their Supreme Court petition. “The question is where to draw the line.”
The ministerial exception is authorized under the First Amendment, which calls for a separation of church and state and allows religious worship without government restriction.
It also bars lawsuits against churches in employment disputes involving church functions.
In the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, former teacher Cheryl Perich says religion is not the issue. Instead, she says the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by firing her after she was diagnosed with narcolepsy.
Perich is not an ordained minister. She taught only one religion class at her school. The other classes were traditional academic courses.
She became ill in 2004. She took a leave from her job until she was diagnosed and treated for narcolepsy. Her doctors then gave her a release to work without restrictions.
Administrators at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School disagreed her illness would not interfere with her job. They refused to let her resume her previous job.
When Perich threatened to sue, they fired her.
The teacher responded by filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
An EEOC investigation agreed Perich was the victim of discrimination based on disability and authorized a lawsuit against the school.
“Hosanna-Tabor asks the wrong question and arrives at the wrong answer,” Perich’s attorneys say in their Supreme Court petition. “The question is not whether Hosanna-Tabor is protected by a categorical 'ministerial exception' nowhere found in the [Americans with Disabilities Act].”
Instead, the question is whether Perich was subjected to retaliation for threatening to sue to hold on to her job, her attorneys argue.
The district court granted the school a summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the ruling.
The appeals court said Perich’s job as a teacher was not a religious function. As a result, the school was not protected from her lawsuit by the ministerial exception.
The Sixth Circuit’s ruling said “when courts have found that teachers classify as ministerial employees for purposes of the [ministerial] exception, those teachers have generally taught primarily religious subjects or had a central role in the spiritual or pastoral mission of the church.”
The only religion course Perich taught lasted 45 minutes out of her seven-hour work day.
The “fact that [Perich] participated in and led some religious activities throughout the day does not make her primary function religious,” the Sixth Circuit’s ruling said.
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