Stakes High for Religious Organizations in Supreme Court Case

The Supreme Court will be deciding the labor rights for thousands of employees in religious organizations Wednesday Oct. 5. Experts have started speculating the high stakes of this case, which has been hailed as one of the most important religion cases in decades.

The case involved a Lutheran elementary school in Mich. where a teacher alleged she was fired in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When Cheryl Perich, a teacher at Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran School, took a leave of absence for chronic sleep disorder she was fired – even though she returned to work with her doctor’s permission.

Following her return, Perich was asked to resign by the congregation.

She sued the school in 2004, snowballing a political chain reaction under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Although this case started with Perich’s experience, it’s really about “ministerial exception,” a 40-year-old legal doctrine that protects churches and other religious institutions from government interference in their employment decisions. The case seeks to solve whether or not religious institutions should follow anti-discrimination laws.

In a recent article for the Atlantic, lawyer and civil libertarian Wendy Kamier said, “If Hosanna-Tabor were a public school or a private secular one, this would be an easy case, and Perich would likely prevail."

Either way, this case would make an enormous impact on the always-evolving world of church and state as it relates to labor laws for church affiliated institutions in the U.S.

“This dispute, involving First Amendment rights of religious organizations deeply implicates individual rights of access to the courts and enforcement of workplace, which prevent courts from even considering whether a religious employer is sincere in claiming a theological reason for firing someone,” writes Kaminer in her Atlantic editorial.

But what will happen on either of both sides?

In an op-ed for The Desert News, Hannah C. Smith of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who represents the church in the Hosanna-Tabor case, wrote:

“Indeed, if the “ministerial exception” did not exist, the landscape of religious life in our country would likely be vastly different. Because of the constitutional protection afforded by the “ministerial exception,” churches can lawfully select leaders and the authorized bearers of its message based on their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

If the court sides with Hosanna-Tabor, then employees labeled ministerial by their employers would be barred to challenge their rights under a range of state and federal employment laws including civil rights, health and safety, and minimum wage laws.

On the other hand, if the court rules for the EEOC, religious employers could not claim automatic exemption from general laws but would bear the burden of demonstrating that an employee is ministerial and that allowing her claim to proceed would violate the organization’s First Amendment rights.

“The trouble is, religious employers are merely human, and they don’t always act in good faith (as the facts in this case suggest),” wrote Kaminer.

However, Smith writes, “Courts may not reverse decisions made by religious tribunals or choose sides in a religious controversy. And the Supreme Court has been right.”

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