Supreme Court to weigh churches' employment rights

March 29, 2011

WASHINGTON (RNS) The Supreme Court agreed Monday (March 28) to consider
whether a teacher who was fired from a religious school is subject to a
"ministerial exception" that can bar suits against religious

The case involves an employment dispute between a Michigan school
and a teacher who is defended by the Equal Employment Opportunity

Lawyers for the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School
in Redford, Mich., argue that courts have long recognized the First
Amendment doctrine that often prevents employees who perform religious
functions from suing religious organizations.

They asked the court to determine whether it extends to teachers at
a religious school who teach a secular curriculum but also teach
religion classes and lead students in prayer.

A lower court sided with the school and against fired teacher Cheryl
Perich, citing the ministerial exception. But last March, the 6th U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, saying it did not apply
because Perich spends 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 and the Supreme Court's consideration is

"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 for Religious

The EEOC has expressed concern that a ruling against Perich could
lead to religious organizations being shielded from all suits filed by
staffers "simply by characterizing all of their duties as religious."