High Court Agrees to Hear Church Employment Case

The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to hear an appeal in the case of a narcoleptic teacher who sued a Christian school for discrimination based on disability.

At issue is whether Cheryl Perich was a secular or religious employee at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich. If religious, the judicially created "ministerial exception" would bar review of her termination.

The Redford church, affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, operates a school for children in pre-school through the eighth grade. Teachers there consist of both contract teachers and "called" teachers. Staffs include non-Lutherans.

According to court documents, Perich was hired as a contract teacher in 1999 but later became a "called" teacher after completing the required colloquy course. She taught math, language arts, social studies, science, gym, art and music as well as computer skills. Along with the secular subjects, she also taught a religion class four days a week, attended a chapel service with her class once a week, and led each class in prayer three times a day.

After becoming ill, Perich went on a disability leave of absence in 2004 and was later diagnosed with narcolepsy.

Soon thereafter, her doctor confirmed that she could return to work and be fully functional with the assistance of medication.

The school's principal, Stacey Hoeft, however, expressed concern that Perich's condition "would jeopardize the safety of the students in her care."

The school board proposed to the congregation that Perich be asked to resign while paying for a portion of her health benefits through that year, 2005.

Perich, however, refused the offer and attempted to return to work.

After being told that she would likely be fired, Perich threatened legal action for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 which prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities.

She was then terminated for "insubordination and disruptive behavior" and for damaging "beyond repair" her working relationship with Hosanna-Tabor by threatening legal action.

The teacher filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed suit against the church and school.

The district court dismissed the suit, recognizing a "ministerial exception" to the Disabilities Act, which prevents interference from the courts when it comes to employment matters in a religious institution.

But the Sixth Circuit reversed the decision, concluding that the school was a religious entity but that ministerial exception did not apply to the former employee because she spent a majority of her time performing "secular" duties.

Perich's employment duties were identical when she was a contract teacher and a called teacher, the court stated.

The Supreme Court is slated to hear the case later this year.

According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm that is representing Hosanna-Tabor in the case, the Supreme Court has never before ruled on such a case.

Luke Goodrich, Deputy National Litigation Director at the Becket Fund, is confident that the high court will rule in the school's favor.

"We are confident that the Court will reject the idea that judges should be telling churches who will teach the faith to the next generation. If 'separation of church and state' means anything, it means the government doesn't get to pick religious teachers," he said in a statement Monday.

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