Thursday, January 12, 2012
Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Court affirmed that religious organizations benefit from a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws.
Commenting on the decision, the NonProfit Times explained that
The unanimous ruling culminated a case in which a woman sued Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich. The woman, Cheryl Perich, said she was fired for pursuing an employment-discrimination claim, based on her having narcolepsy. Hosanna-Tabor didn’t deny the facts, but responded that it fired Perich for violating religious doctrine by taking the case to court rather than trying to settle it within the church.
The High Court, in a unanimous decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, affirmed religious entities’ right to choose who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.
The Reporter, the official newspaper of the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, gave more details:
In the case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, et al.,a former commissioned-minister (teacher) at the now-closed Hosanna-Tabor school sued the school after she was dismissed in 2005 for "insubordination and disruptive conduct in violation of church teaching," according to Hosanna-Tabor's Petition for Certiorari.
The fourth-grade teacher, Cheryl Perich, sued the congregation for disability discrimination, claiming the church rescinded her call as a commissioned minister because of her narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that typically causes excessive daytime sleepiness.
A federal district court dismissed the case based on the "ministerial exception," a First Amendment doctrine that bars lawsuits that would interfere in the relationship between a religious organization and employees who perform religious functions.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit later reversed the district court and ruled in favor of Perich, holding that the teacher had a predominantly "secular" role because she spent more time each day teaching secular subjects than religious ones.
In his opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts said that, in light of the First Amendment's guarantee of the free exercise of religion, "it is impermissible for the government to contradict a church's determination of who can act as its ministers."
Justice Roberts continued:
Since the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other employment discrimination laws, the Courts of Appeals have uniformly recognized the existence of a 'ministerial exception,' grounded in the First Amendment, that precludes the application of such legislation to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers. The Court agrees that there is such a ministerial exception.
As a minister of religion, I am delighted with the Court's decision. In fact, I agree with the writer at the North American Religious Liberty Association who opined that this was "likely the most important religious liberty case to come down in the past two decades."