Teacher loses church-state employment appeal

Story highlights

  • High court finds teacher was a "minister"
  • Courts have blocked suits on employment decisions between religious institutions and ministerial workers
  • "The church must be free to choose those who will guide its way," writes the chief justice
A former teacher at a Michigan religious school lost her workplace discrimination claim at the Supreme Court Wednesday, as the justices deftly avoided the larger questions raised in the church-state dispute.
At issue was whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to hiring and firing decisions involving "ministerial employees" like teachers who may have primarily secular job duties.
The unanimous high court concluded Cheryl Perich was indeed a "minister" under a narrow reading of the law and the specific circumstances of her job duties.
"The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important," said Chief Justice John Roberts. "But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.
"When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide its way."
Court records show 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 her 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 sued the church on her behalf.
Federal courts have upheld an exception in the Americans with Disabilities Act blocking government intrusion in the employment decisions between religious institutions and ministerial workers. The church said Perich was just such an employee and therefore the institution could not be sued.
Perich had been hired in 1999, and she 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 that of the local public schools. Perich also taught a religion class four days a week, and she 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, according to court documents.
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.
Perich attended the one-hour oral arguments at the high court, saying afterward, "I can't fathom how the Constitution in any way can be interpreted to deny me my fundamental rights. I hope the court sees it that way."
The Redford, Michigan, school is affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, but does not require its teachers to be called, or even Lutheran.
A federal appeals court in Cincinnati eventually ruled for Perich, saying her primary duties as a teacher were not religious in nature. But the justices, despite some concerns raised during October's oral argument, found for the school.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had backed Perich. Justice Department lawyer Leondra Kruger had told the court, "The government's interest in this case is not in dictating to the church-operated school who it may choose to teach religion classes and who it may not. It is one thing and one thing only, which is to tell the school that it may not punish its employees for threatening to report civil wrongs to civil authorities."
But Douglas Laycock, representing the church, said, "Government does not set the criteria for selecting and removing officers of the church. That's a bedrock principle."
The justices avoided confronting larger questions of religious doctrine raised in the original appeal, such as which religious groups might be constitutionally insulated from any claims. That included whether courts could -- in an employment context -- compel the ordination of women by the Catholic Church or by an Orthodox Jewish seminary.
Roberts said religious groups were different when it came to certain employment decisions.
"The right to freedom of association is a right enjoyed by religious and secular groups alike," he said. "We cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization's freedom to select its own ministers."
The Constitution's First Amendment bars any government from passing laws "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The high court in the past has typically dealt with such church-state disputes by 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.
Several dozen briefs supporting both sides had been filed by religious and civil liberty organizations, employment groups, and eight other states.
"Obviously, churches are not 'above the law.' However, governments are not permitted to resolve essentially religious disputes and questions," said Rick Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and a former law clerk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist. "Today's decision is a resounding win for religious liberty in America, and it will be welcomed by a wide range of religious communities and traditions and across the political spectrum."
But other groups expressed disappointment.
"Clergy who are fired for reasons unrelated to matters of theology -- no matter how capricious or venal those reasons may be -- have just had the courthouse door slammed in their faces," said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Six members of the high court are Catholic, the other three are Jewish.