Sunday, January 15, 2012

U.S. Supremes go 9-0 in Redford church-state case, but aren't exactly clear

Posted By on Sun, Jan 15, 2012 at 3:52 PM

Last summer, MT reported on a landmark case headed to the U.S. Supreme Court involving a former teacher, Cheryl Perich, who was fired from her job at Hosana-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford.

On Wednesday, the Court ruled unanimously in favor of the school’s firing, but left some court-watchers scratching their heads over what the implications exactly are.

Perich went on medical leave for developing narcolepsy in 2005. After six months she was cleared to return to work by her doctor, but the church refused her return arguing she couldn’t perform her job.

She threatened legal action to get her job back — and was promptly fired. The church said school policy requires them to resolve disputes internally. But Perich sued for a retaliatory firing on top of filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming her termination violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The church argued they were protected under a “ministerial exception,” a provision created by case law which prohibits ministers and other employees with significant religious duties from bringing claims against the religious institutions they’re employed by. The provision allows church’s an exemption from some federal laws, including anti-discrimination laws.

Perich’s lawyers said the limited religious instructional duties of her position fell short of the ministerial exception. She held the title of “called teacher” after completing church-based training, but mostly taught secular subjects only occasionally teaching religious studies.

A NYT editorial summed up the somewhat-baffling result that arose from Wednesday’s decision by avoiding ministerial classification:

In his opinion for the unanimous court, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. seems to minimize the scope of the ruling by avoiding “a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister” and by not saying how the exception would apply in other circumstances.

Although the court does not provide much guidance on how to proceed in future lawsuits against churches as employers, the ruling has broad sweep. It abandons the court’s longtime practice of balancing the interest in the free exercise of religion against important government interests, like protection against workplace bias or retaliation. With a balancing test, courts consider whether a general law, if applied to a religious institution, would inhibit its freedom more broadly than justified and, in those circumstances, courts could exempt the church.

Furthermore, the opinion offered no potential indication for how Perich could have considered fighting back, and an additional footnote left the potential for future courts to take up similar cases.

So, the Court unanimously decided Perich was considered a minister but offered no concrete definition for future scenarios.

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