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.
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.”