One of the most important religious cases disputed in years, involving the separation of church and state, will soon come before the U.S. Supreme Court. The legal battle could change whether or not the federal government can dictate or interfere with church authority.
Arguments in the case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, will be heard Oct. 5. The case centers on “ministerial exception,” which is a law that has been on the books for some 40 years.
This “exception” protects churches and other religious groups from discrimination claims against them including issues on hiring and firing employees.
The high profile legal dispute involves Cheryl Perich, a former fourth grade teacher at the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church School. Perich was fired for insubordination and disruptive conduct in 2005. The church congregation that same year approved her termination.
“Called teachers, like Perich, normally receive tenure and may be dismissed only for cause,” according to court records.
Forcing the church to retain Perich after she was fired would be an unconstitutional restriction on its right to choose its religious leaders, church leaders said in a statement.
One of the most important arguments that will come before the Supreme Court in the case is whether the government should be allowed to decide which duties are “religious,” and which are not.
Attorneys representing the church say Perich caused a scene at the school after taking several months off to address an illness involving a sleep disorder. She ended up threatening to file a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act while discussing her job responsibilities with the principal.
The school, citing concerns about her health, had asked Perich to voluntarily resign her call to be a teacher of religion, or minister under the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod laws. She refused and filed a complaint with the EEOC.
The EEOC and Perich then filed suit in federal district court alleging that the church had retaliated against Perich, which was in violation of the ADA.
In 2008, the district court decided against Perich, ruling that since she had been called as a commissioned minister, her firing was subject to the ministerial exception and thus was not within the court’s right to interfere.
Court records show that in 2010, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Perich was not covered by the ministerial exception because most of her duties were secular, and overturned the decision.
Now, a host of organizations are involved in the legalities of the case including the Becket Fund, the ACLU, the NAACP, the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, human rights organizations, bishops and the federal government.
Douglas Laycock, the attorney on record representing the Lutheran Church, told The Christian Post that this legal battle is unprecedented and could impact every church in the nation.
“Lutheran churches put a heavy weight on teachers and religious education by requiring their teachers take theology courses and they also get a ministerial housing allowance,” Laycock told The Christian Post in a phone interview Friday.
He explained that the purpose of the ministerial exception is to protect the right of religious institutions to choose their own religious leaders.
"This case has the potential to change employment relations in virtually every religious institution in the nation."
Experts say it is a legal battle that will start massive controversy and widespread social disruptions. Questions about non-clergy qualifications, the protections of equal employment laws even if they work at religious organizations that claim exemptions to those laws and government involvement in the church, are all sensitive discussions up for debate.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life analyzed the case stating the Supreme Court has never ruled on the 40-year-old legal doctrine, but judges in lower federal courts have used it to exempt religious organizations from anti-discrimination laws and other statutes that regulate how employers treat their workers.
"The big question for the Supreme Court is whether the ministerial exception rule applies to a teacher at a religious elementary school who teaches the full secular curriculum, but also teaches daily religion classes, is a commissioned minister, and regularly leads students in prayer and worship," Laycock said.
The Supreme Court, which has three female justices, will have to find a common ground that “involve inherently religious questions,” and “if the matter is a theological dispute and belongs in the court system."
The American Civil Liberties Union, which submitted an opinion on the case, said in a statement they hope "the justices will narrowly interpret the ministerial exception."
Pew researchers said in a statement that "Hosanna-Tabor case offers the justices an opportunity to mold and shape a doctrine that has existed in lower federal courts for 40 years. The lack of even one prior Supreme Court decision on the doctrine makes it difficult to predict how the court ultimately will rule, but the Hosanna-Tabor case has the potential to change the ministerial exception, perhaps quite significantly."
The Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church in Redford, Mich., operated a K-8 school founded on biblical principles. Teachers at the school are required to serve as Christian role models, and they are tasked with duties such as leading students in prayer, worship, and religious study, according to the school’s website.
The congregation eventually closed the church’s school in 2009.