Today the Supreme Court heard a case centering around whether teachers in religious schools should be exempt from civil rights laws.
In 1999, Cheryl Perich began teaching at Hosanna-Tabor, a Lutheran Church-run school in eastern Michigan. Initially, she was a contract teacher. She later became a “called teacher” after she finished coursework at a Lutheran University.
Perich primarily taught math and science, but she also led her classes in prayer, gave the homily in chapel several times a year, and taught a religion class for 45 minutes a day.
So was she a religious teacher or a secular teacher? The distinction would become important later on…
During the 2004-2005 school year, Perich went on disability leave because she was diagnosed with narcolepsy.
… her doctor expected her to be able to return to full-time work in two to three months. The following month, the school changed its health insurance policy, hired another teacher and suggested that Perich resign. When she refused and threatened to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act, she was fired.
So Perich sued (for real) for a different reason: the Americans with Disabilities Act specifically says you cannot fire someone in retaliation for them threatening to sue you.
But that’s a government law, said the Lutheran leaders. Their argument was that since Perich was more of a religious teacher than a secular one, she had to abide by Church law, not federal law. And Church doctrine said that she should’ve handled the issue internally. By threatening to sue, she was taking the matter outside the church and that gave them the right to fire her under what’s being called the “ministerial exception.” Basically, churches don’t have to comply with federal discrimination laws when it comes to hiring/firing ministers. (That’s why a Catholic Church can’t get sued for refusing to hire a Muslim.)
The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Perich. They said she taught more secular classes than religious ones. (They even calculated the time spent in each area.)
Now the Supreme Court has to decide (PDF) who’s in the right. If the Church wins, it could mean that religious groups could effectively stifle any employee considered a “minister” from filing a lawsuit against them. Who’s considered a minister? Good question. According to law professor Howard Friedman, it could include the “cook in the kosher cafeteria of a Jewish day school, the school nurse in a Catholic middle school, or the recess monitor in a Christian elementary school.” What about the janitor? Isn’t he or she indirectly helping the church?
Even the Justices aren’t sure how slippery the slope could get:
Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked whether a church should be allowed to invoke the ministerial exception in the case of “a teacher who reports sexual abuse to the government and is fired because of that reporting.”
Sadly, religious denominations everywhere are overwhelmingly supporting the Church on this issue. The only major denomination to support Perich is the Unitarian Universalist Association (go UUs!).
Overall, expanding the definition of “ministerial” employees to include teachers and other workers seems like a bad idea. Churches receive plenty of benefits from the government as is, including tax-exemptions (and even those are flaunted). There’s no reason they should also be able to get away with firing someone who works for them in a primarily non-religious capacity.
The Supreme Court’s decision is expected in June.
(via Get Religion)