Should religious institutions have to follow anti-discrimination laws? That’s the question the Supreme Court will address on Oct. 5, when one of the most important religion cases in decades will be presented.
The case concerns “ministerial exception,” a 40-year-old legal doctrine that protects churches and other religious institutions from government interference in their employment decisions.
According to the Religion News Service, the case began when the teacher of a Lutheran elementary school in Redford, Mich., claimed she was fired in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Cheryl Perich taught third and fourth graders at Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran School. In 2004 she was diagnosed with narcolepsy and received medical consent to return to work after being on disability leave.
Perich ran into problems when she tried to return to the school.
According to RNS, the school asked Perich to resign after they hired a substitute. When she threatened to sue, the congregation fired her.
Hosanna-Tabor, which is now closed, hired Perich as a “called teacher” and it was her duty to “advance the religious doctrines of the congregation that operated the school.”
However, Perich taught secular subjects in addition to religion.
That contract clause made her a “commissioned minister” which falls into the ministerial exemption category of the law.
Attorney Luke Goodrich of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the church, said, "The purpose of the ministerial exception is to protect the right of religious institutions to choose their religious leaders.”
“Advocates for the ministerial exception argue that in religious institutions, in their hiring and firing, should be regulated as little as possible," Ira C. Lupu told RNS.
Lupu is a professor at The George Washington University School of Law, who specializes in church-state cases.
The dispute is not over whether or not a religious congregation should be unregulated when it chooses to hire or fire clergy. The case will challenge the employment decisions regarding secular workers, like teachers and office employees.
In 2008, Perich lost her first suit in federal court, but the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor last year.
While Goodrich is representing the church, The American Civil Liberties Union is representing the government’s side.
"While faith communities surely have the right to set religious doctrine and decide which ministers best advance their religious beliefs and practices, they shouldn't get a blank check to discriminate or retaliate against their employees," said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief in RNS.
One of the most hard-hitting questions facing the court is this: should the government be allowed to decide which employee duties are “religious” and which are not?
"I'll tell you what makes this case really interesting," said Lupu. "The last time the Supreme Court heard a case about internal church disputes was more than 30 years ago. This makes for a certain amount of unpredictability."