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Supreme Court Says Religious School Can Fire Teacher for Illness

In a unanimous ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld for the first time a “ministerial exception” limiting the rights of employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive  In These Times weekly updates.

In a unanimous  ruling last month, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld for the first time a “ministerial exception” limiting the rights of some employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the case,  Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a church-run elementary school asserted that such an exception protected its decision to fire "called teacher" Cheryl Perich following her medical leave and threat to file an ADA lawsuit. Prominent organizations  weighed in on both sides: The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the American Jewish Committee, and the Muslim-American Public Affairs Council were among those filing briefs backing Hosanna-Tabor; the NAACP, People for the American Way, and the Anti-Defamation League backed Perich.

Perich's conflict with the Lutheran Church and School began in January 2005, when she told her principal that she was ready to return to work following a medical leave for narcolepsy. The principal questioned whether Perich was healthy enough to work, and told her that she had already been replaced. The church’s congregation, which is vested with decision-making powers, offered to pay a portion of Perich’s health insurance costs if she would voluntarily resign.

Perich declined the offer, and instead showed up at the school on the first day her medical leave was over, declaring she wouldn’t leave without a note documenting that she had shown up ready to work. According to the Supreme Court, when her principal told Perich the school was likely to fire her, “Perich responded that she had spoken with an attorney and intended to assert her legal rights.” A letter from the School Board Chairman to Perich charged that her “insubordination and disruptive behavior,” and “threatening to take legal action” had “damaged, beyond repair, [her] working relationship” with Hosanna-Tabor. Perich’s status as a “called teacher” was withdrawn in a congregational vote, and the school fired her.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Hosanna-Tabor for violating the ADA’s prohibition on retaliation against workers for asserting their rights under the Act. A District Court sided with the church, citing past federal court decisions finding a “ministerial exception” which grants religious institutions discretion over who is hired or retained to do religious work. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals  disagreed. It upheld the principle of the ministerial exception, but determined that it didn’t apply to Perich, because her job duties (teaching third and fourth grade) were mostly secular. The Appeals Court sent the case back down to the District Court for a ruling on the merits of the firing; Hosanna-Tabor appealed the case up to the Supreme Court.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts validated prior lower courts' precedent finding a “ministerial exception,” and ruled that it covered Perich. “Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so,” wrote Roberts, “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.” 

Roberts cited the First Amendment’s prohibitions on Congress making a "law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” “Imposing an unwanted minister,” Roberts warned, would constitute “government involvement” in “ecclesiastical decisions,” and would violate “a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.”

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