March 28th, 2011
05:07 PM ET
By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
In a twist on the hotly contested national debate on church-state matters, the Supreme Court will decide whether a teacher at a religious school can sue under a federal law against workplace discrimination. The justices accepted review Monday of an appeal from a Lutheran church in Michigan, and will hear oral arguments this fall.
At issue is whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to hiring and firing decisions involving "ministerial employees" like teachers who may have primarily secular job duties.
Court records show Cheryl Perich went on medical leave for narcolepsy in 2004. When she tried to return several months later to the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, officials refused to accept her, saying a substitute had been hired to complete the school year.
After weeks of often acrimonious discussions between herself and the school, Perich was fired for insubordination and "regrettable" conduct toward church leaders. She then complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which then sued the church on her behalf.
Perich had been hired five years earlier, and eventually became a "called" teacher, meaning she could not be fired without cause.
Assigned to third and fourth grades, she led instruction in math, language arts, social studies, gym and music, with much of the curriculum identical to the local public schools. Perich also taught a religion class four days a week, and engaged in daily prayers and devotionals with her students. The religion-based activities typically took up about 45 minutes of the seven-hour school day.
She also led chapel services with her class twice a year, on a rotation basis with other instructors.
The faculty has two types of teachers - "lay" employees who are on one-year contracts; and called teachers like Perich who have completed a formal colloquy, receiving a certificate of admission into the teaching ministry. Those parochial instructors are hired on an open-ended basis and cannot be summarily dismissed without proper justification. Perich began as a contract teacher, but fulfilled the requirements to be a called teacher, becoming a "commissioned minister" in the Lutheran Church.
The Redford, Michigan, school is affiliated with the Lutheran-Missouri Synod, but does not require its teachers to be called, or even Lutheran.
Federal courts have upheld a exception in the ADA blocking government intrusion in the employment decisions between religious institutions and ministerial workers.
A federal appeals court in Cincinnati eventually ruled for Perich, saying her primary duties as a teacher were not religious in nature.
"Given the undisputed evidence that all teachers at Hosanna-Tabor were assigned the same duties, a finding that Perich is a 'ministerial' employee would compel the conclusion that all teachers at the school - called, contract, Lutheran and non-Lutheran - are similarly excluded from coverage under the ADA and other federal fair employment laws," wrote the three-judge panel.
"However, the intent of the ministerial exception is to allow religious organizations to prefer members of their own religion and adhere to their own religious interpretations. Thus, applying the exception to non-members of the religion and those whose primary function is not religious in nature would be both illogical and contrary to the intention behind the exception."
The justices will now step into the debate. The Constitution's First Amendment bars any government from passing laws "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting free exercise thereof."
The high court in the past has typically dealt with such church-state disputes as allowing Ten Commandment displays in public buildings; the mention of "God" on currency and in the Pledge of Allegiance; manger and menorah displays in public parks; and school and legislature prayer.
Legal experts say federal courts have been split on the current issue, and it gives the justices a rare opportunity to explore a religious freedom dispute from an employment context.
The case is Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (10-553).
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