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The Supreme Court and the 'ministerial exception'

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court hears the case of a Christian schoolteacher fired in a dispute over a disability and church doctrine. The justices should be careful about allowing government to judge a faith's teachings when it is charged with discrimination.

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America’s religious institutions have long been able to stand apart from federal laws in the hiring and firing of employees crucial to their mission. Churches with male-only clergy, for example, can exercise that right to religious freedom despite the gender bias.

But on Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear a case in which, for the first time, the justices could lay out rules for government to decide if a group’s theology and practices are out of step with laws that bar discrimination.

The case involves the dismissal of a fourth-grade teacher by a church-run Lutheran school after she took a leave of absence for a sleep disorder. Concerned about her condition to teach again, the church asked her to resign. She threatened to file a discrimination case under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The church then fired her, claiming she had violated church teachings on resolving resolve disputes internally with Christian principles.

A district court judge ruled against the teacher, Cheryl Perich, who was “called” by the church as a commissioned minister. But an appeals court found the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church can be charged with retaliation under the ADA, claiming the teacher’s job was mostly secular – despite her duties to also teach the Bible and act as a Christian role model for students in teaching secular topics.

The high court is being asked to rule on the “ministerial exception,” a 40-year-old legal doctrine that allows religious groups to give “preference in employment to individuals of a particular religion” and to “require that all applicants and employees conform to the religious tenets of such organization.”

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