In an important case involving the First Amendment’s separation of church and state, the justices will consider whether a former teacher at a Lutheran elementary school can sue the church-run school for alleged disability discrimination and retaliation.
School officials argue that the lawsuit is barred under the “ministerial exception,” a legal doctrine which blocks employment-related lawsuits against religious organizations filed by employees who perform important religious functions.
The ministerial exception is designed to insulate religious groups from interference and second-guessing by judges and others about how the group is carrying out its religious mission. It applies to pastors, priests, and rabbis.
The issue in the Lutheran school case is whether it also applies to a teacher who spent most of her day presenting a secular curriculum to her students, but who also was a “commissioned minister” who taught religious classes and led the children in prayer.
Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor representing the Lutheran school, says the case could trigger “a revolution in relations between church and state.”
“The ministerial exception is limited to employees who perform functions important to the employer’s religious mission,” he writes in his brief to the court. He says the teacher was dismissed for violating church rules and that the courts cannot decide her claim without becoming involved in underlying religious disputes.
“Allowing her claim to go forward would leave the church unable to control who teaches the faith to the next generation,” Mr. Laycock writes.