ACLJ: Gov't Has No Business in Churches' Hiring Practices

A Redford, Mich., Lutheran church school successfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case to decide whether churches and ministries have a right to hire or fire employees who take issue with its policies despite federal laws.

The Supreme Court will hear Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to determine whether the Michigan church and the school it runs have the freedom to select their ministerial employees without government intrusion.

"Government clearly has no business choosing priests, rabbis, or ministers. Nor should government agents be ordering church schools to hire or retain teachers the school does not want," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law & Justice.

The American Center for Law and Justice and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court this week on the church's behalf.

In the brief, both groups contend that the "ministerial exception" constitutionally bars an employment discrimination suit launched by a former Hosanna-Tabor teacher from going forward.

Teacher Cheryl Perich asserts in court documents that she was unfairly fired after being on a disability leave for several months. Perich said she was assured by school administrators that she would be able to return to her job despite a lengthy absence.

However, court documents reveal that Perich did not complete the disability documents qualifying for such leave.

Perich had been diagnosed with narcolepsy after going on a disability leave of absence in 2004. Her doctor confirmed that she could return to work and be fully functional with the assistance of medication. But the school's principal, Stacey Hoeft, expressed concern that Perich's condition "would jeopardize the safety of the students in her care."

The teacher was asked to resign, which she refused to do.

After threatening legal action, she was terminated for "insubordination and disruptive behavior" and for damaging "beyond repair" her working relationship with Hosanna-Tabor.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against the school on her behalf.

At issue is whether Perich was a secular or religious employee at Hosanna-Tabor which employs both Lutherans and non-Lutherans. If religious, the judicially created "ministerial exception" would bar review of her termination.

In this case, the ACLJ and IVCF assert the judicially created "ministerial exception," which when applied to employment laws bars court review of the claim.

A federal district court threw the case out on the grounds based on that claim.

However, a federal appeals court reinstated the lawsuit after the EEOC argued the majority of Perich's instruction was secular in nature and the school does not require teachers to be Lutheran.

Although Perich taught with secular subjects with secular text books, she also led students in prayer three times a day and had a five- to 10-minute devotion each morning. Perich also attended chapel with the students weekly and taught a religion class.

The school's website states its mission is to equip God's children to grow as disciples in His Word through a Christ-centered education. It also describes its staff members as "fine Christian roles models who integrate faith into all subjects."

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled to uphold the ministerial exception in previous cases involving Catholic institutions. The ACLJ is confident about the case.

The Supreme Court will likely hear oral arguments in the case in the fall and issue a decision sometime in 2012.

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