Yesterday’s 9-0 ruling by the Supreme Court should be great news for Christian (and other religious institutions) organizations. In the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case, the issue was whether the ministerial exception which the EEOC wanted to strictly define to workers who perform strictly religious functions applied also to teachers who teach non-religious curriculum in a religious school.
The Supreme Court for the first time acknowledged a “ministerial exception” in anti-discrimination lawsuits, and it rejected the EEOC’s definition.
In July 1999, the school hired Cheryl Perich to teach kindergarten as a contract teacher. The next year, she completed the required religious studies and became a “called” teacher, but with no change in what she taught. For the next three years, she taught kindergarten. During the 2003-2004 school year, she taught third and fourth grades. She taught math, language arts, social studies, science, gym, art, and music, using non-religious textbooks. She almost never introduced any religious ideas into her classes; she remembered, in fact, doing so only twice.
However, four days a week, for 30 minutes, she taught a religion class, and she attended chapel with her class once a week for 30 minutes. She did lead her class in prayer three times a day, for five or six minutes. In the final year she was at the school, the class under her leadership engaged in a brief devotional activity each day. Twice a year, she took her turn — with all teachers, contract or “called” — in leading chapel services.
In June 2004, before the next term opened, she suddenly became ill and was hospitalized. She ultimately was diagnosed with narcolepsy, and took a leave for the following school year. In January 2005, she told the school she would be cleared to return to work in February. The school, however, decided that her health would not permit her return, and a replacement was hired to teach third and fourth grades. School officials then decided it would be best if she resigned. Ultimately, Perich and school leaders came into sharp conflict, when she threatened to sue, claiming that the refusal to retain her was based on her illness, and thus the school would be charged with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. When she tried to return to school, she was fired; she was told that she was let go because of her threat to sue, which violated a Lutheran religious tenet that members of the faith should resolve internally their disagreements.
She filed charges with EEOC, claiming retaliation under the ADA. The EEOC wound up suing the school, and Perich joined in the lawsuit. A District Court ruled that her claim was barred by the “ministerial exception” to federal workplace discrimination law. The Sixth Circuit Court, however, while recognizing (as have all federal Circuit Courts) that there was such an exception, ruled that Perich could not be treated as a “minister” under that exception because her duties were not primarily involved in the teaching of the faith, and that she had no role in spreading the faith or in church government.
Chief Justice John Roberts in writing the court’s opinion said the 6th Circuit put too much weight in the time involving non-religious duties. He said the Court was unsure any church employee would ever do exclusively religious chores. The Court said the First Amendment is clear in preventing government interference, Roberts wrote, “”The Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.”
He also wrote:
Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments….
…According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.
While this doesn’t dismiss every lawsuit out there, it is an excellent precedent in reiterating that the Government does not have any business telling a religious organization who they can hire or fire, as well as, who the church can consider a “minister.”
Originally cross-posted at American Principles in Action