The U.S. Supreme Court justices considered on Wednesday whether churches and religious institutions have the right to claim ministerial exception in employment issues, in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The ministerial exception allows religious entities to give preference in employment to individuals of a particular religion or require that employees confirm the organization's religious tenants.
University of Virginia Law professor Douglas Laycock, the attorney representing the Redford, Mich., school, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that if ministerial exception is struck down in their case, then judges would be left to determine whether ministers were performing their religious duties effectively in future cases.
"To evaluate these discrimination claims, courts would have to decide whether this person was discharged for being a bad minister or not," Laycock said in a statement. "That is a decision, we think, that is committed to religious bodies and is beyond the authority of government and also just beyond its factual ability to evaluate it."
In 2005, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church dismissed Cheryl Perich, one of the teachers at its K-8 elementary school. Perich sued the school under the Americans with Disabilities Act, asking the court to reinstate her.
The EEOC argued that the firing of Perich was retaliatory because she refused to resign. Perich had been diagnosed with narcolepsy after having been on disability for several months.
Court documents show Perich was terminated for "insubordination and disruptive behavior" and for damaging "beyond repair" her working relationship with Hosanna-Tabor.
Additionally, Hosanna-Tabor Principal Stacey Hoeft expressed concerns that Perich's condition "would jeopardize the safety of the students in her care," according to court documents.
Laycock said it does not matter why Perich was fired, because Hosanna-Tabor is protected by ministerial exception.
Ministerial exception blocks most employment-related lawsuits brought against religious organizations from employees who perform important ministry functions.
Justice Samuel Alito acknowledged that the court has given a lot of deference to churches' definition of a minister.
The Supreme Court has in fact upheld ministerial exception in previous cases involving Catholic and Jewish institutions.
Laycock argued that the ministerial exception is applicable in this case because Perich was a "called" teacher who completed specialized training and performed the functions of a minister.
Perich, according to court documents, led students in prayer three times a day and had a five- to 10-minute devotion each morning. She also attended chapel with the students weekly and taught a religion class.
"If you teach the doctrines of the faith, you are a minister," Laycock replied. As a minister, Perich did not have the right to sue, he stated.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, however, sided with the EEOC, noting "there was no difference in what she was doing" before she was designated as a called teacher and after.
The EEOC also contended that Perich mostly taught secular subjects with secular textbooks. These duties, the agency said, could be performed by any teacher, whether or not they are designated as "called" or even Lutheran.
However, Alito noted that in deciding the merits of Perich's discrimination claims justices "cannot get away from evaluating religious issues,” something the First Amendment prohibits courts from doing.
A federal district court agreed that the First Amendment prohibited the courts for getting involved in the lawsuit and threw it out. However, a federal appeals court reinstated the lawsuit after the EEOC argued that the majority of Perich's instruction was secular in nature.
The American Center for Law and Justice and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA filed a joint amicus brief with the Supreme Court in June urging, the justices to uphold ministerial exception in this case.
The Supreme Court is set to issue a ruling in the spring of 2012.