The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in religious freedom case Hosanna-Tabor v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, involving the firing of a schoolteacher from a church-based school. This legal battle will determine important church and state separation issues.
“This is so important; it affects the right of every religious group in the country to choose its leaders in accordance to religious beliefs,” Luke Goodrich told The Christian Post in an interview Monday.
As an attorney for the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, Goodrich is representing Hosanna Tabor Lutheran School in the Supreme Court case known as “ministerial exception.”
The Becket Fund, a non-profit public interest group that defends the free expression of all faiths, said they have received an outpouring of support for their position in this influential case.
According to Goodrich, the non-profit received over 100 letters from evangelical and mainline Christian groups such as: United States Conference of Catholic bishops, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and various Episcopal churches.
The controversial legal dispute involves Cheryl Perich, a former fourth grade teacher at Hosanna-Tabor in Redford, Mich.
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 the Religion News Service, the Hosanna-Tabor asked Perich to resign after they hired a substitute.
When she threatened to sue, the congregation fired her.
One of Hosanna-Tabor’s main arguments is that the first amendment of the Constitution protects the right of religious groups to choose their leaders.
For almost forty years, the lower courts recognized ministerial exception, a legal doctrine that protects churches and other religious institutions from government interference in their employment decisions.
A main issue of the case questioned whether the rule should be limited to clergy or applied to all staff at religious institutions.
Goodrich told CP, “Our position is that it shouldn’t be limited to priests, rabbis and other clergy because they are not the only ones leading religious worship. Teachers lead students in prayer and worship.”
“She (Perich) incorporated religion into secular subjects. She had extensive theological training and actually held an Ecclesiastical office within the church. Our argument is that she’s the main channel in which the church communicates the faith,” he added.
According to Goodrich, there is a very thorough internal dispute solution in religious institutions that derives from 1 Corinthians Chapter 6.
“It’s a very explicit church teaching that establishes formal church courts. The church specifically teaches that believers should try to resolve issues within the church,” said Goodrich.
“She (Perich) declined to do that, threatened to sue and did sue,” stated Goodrich, explaining how the Beckett Fund planned to combat the anti-discriminatory claims.
“You don’t just run off to secular court and sue. She was acting in clear disregard to church teaching,” he added.
According to Watson v. Jones, a Supreme Court case from 1871, churches have a right to form tribunals for the resolution of religious questions.
“You have a congregational vote and her lawsuit challenges the highest church authority,” said Goodrich. “It is asking a secular court to overturn the church vote on her fitness for ministry – on whether she’s religiously qualified.”
Represented by U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Perich argued that there shouldn’t be a broad exception and that anti-discrimination laws should apply to churches.
Perich’s lawyers referenced Employment Decision v. Smith. The 1990 case determined that the state could deny unemployment benefits to a person fired for violating a state ban against the use of peyote – even though the drug was used during a religious ritual.
Goodrich told CP that separation of church of state would be an argued by both sides.
“We would say that if the separation of church and state means anything, it doesn’t get to dictate to the church that will teach the faith to the next generation,” he said.