Putting Education Reform To The Test

Teachers At Religious Schools Not Protected By Discrimination Laws

The Supreme Court ruled today that religious employees of a church, including private, religious schools cannot sue for employee discrimination, according to the AP.

In the Michigan case, the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich., was sued by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Cheryl Perich, a teacher at the school who sometimes also led chapel service. Perich taught one religious class and four secular classes four days a week.

Perich tried to return to work from disability leave after being diagnosed with narcolepsy in 2004. The school had hired a substitute for that year, and Perich was fired after she threatened to sue for her job back. Perich sought anti-discrimination protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

An earlier investigation by StateImpact Florida reported on a loophole in federal and Florida laws that allow public schools to turn away students with disabilities.

Now, the Supreme Court has acknowledged for the first time the existence of a “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws.

Writing the court’s opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Allowing anti-discrimination lawsuits against religious organizations could end up forcing churches to take religious leaders they no longer want.”

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts

“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,” Roberts said. “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.”

When the EEOC sued the church for violations of the disabilities act, a federal judge threw out the lawsuit on grounds that Perich fell under the ADA’s ministerial exception, which keeps the government from interfering with church affairs. But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated her lawsuit, saying Perich’s “primary function was teaching secular subjects” so the ministerial exception didn’t apply.

The federal appeals court’s reasoning was wrong, Roberts said. He said that Perich had been ordained as a minister and the lower court put too much weight on the fact that regular teachers also performed the same religious duties as she did.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also placed too much emphasis on the fact that Perich’s religious duties only took up 45 minutes of her workday, while secular duties consumed the rest, Roberts said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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