Supreme Court Takes Religious-School Teacher Dispute

The Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether a teacher who was fired from a religious school can sue under a federal law against workplace discrimination. Traditionally, many courts have awarded a “ministerial exception” to religious organizations, protecting them from discrimination lawsuits by employees. This case will decide whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to religious-school teachers whose jobs are primarily secular.

In 2004, teacher Cheryl Perich was told by her employer, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, that she could not return to her position after she went on medical leave for narcolepsy. The Redford, Mich., school told her a substitute had been hired to complete the school year.

Perich then discussed the issue at length with the administration and soon was fired for insubordination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the Lutheran organization on her behalf.

A lower court sided with the school, citing the ministerial exception. But last March, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, saying the exception did not apply because Perich spent most of her time teaching secular topics.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the school, said federal appeals courts are divided on the limits of the ministerial exception.

“If ‘separation of church and state’ means anything, it means the government doesn’t get to pick religious teachers,” said Luke Goodrich, deputy national litigation director at the Becket Fund.

But the EEOC is concerned that ruling against Perich could lead to religious organizations being exempt from all bias lawsuits filed by employees simply by characterizing their jobs as religious.

The case is Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.