The Supreme Court has ruled that church employees, who believe that they have been discriminated against, may not be protected under federal discrimination laws, because the Constitution recognizes the right of religious institutions to select their own leaders.
The case relates to Cheryl Perich, a teacher who alleges in her lawsuit that the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Michigan violated federal anti discrimination laws when it terminated her after she was diagnosed with narcolepsy. She joined the school as a teacher in 1999, and underwent religious training. In 2004, she became ill, but was back at work in 2005. By this time, the school informed her that her position was no longer vacant. When she threatened legal action against the school, she was fired.
According to the church as well as school officials, her behavior amounted to a violation of the doctrine of the Lutheran Church-Missouri synod, which holds that disputes should be resolved within the parameters of the church's doctrine, and not taken to court. Perich then sued the church, alleging violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the church on her behalf.
The EEOC based its lawsuit on ministerial exemption, a clause that California employment lawyers know applies only to persons who perform religious duties in the church. However, the US Court Of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that Perich did not qualify as a minister. The Supreme Court has disagreed, and has said that she does meet the ministerial exemption clause. According to her own estimation, the religious part of her duties took about 45 minutes per day. She taught some religion classes, and on occasion, even led chapel services.
This is one of the most important church-related decisions by the Supreme Court in decades, and is expected to include some, but not all teachers employed in church schools.