Education Opinion

Do Teachers Relinquish Rights at Religious Schools?

By Walt Gardner — January 04, 2011 3 min read
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Teachers opt to teach in religious schools for reasons known only to themselves. But I wonder if they fully understand what they give up when they decide to do so. Two cases now before the courts illustrate the issue.

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC , the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 applies to teachers who also perform religious duties in church schools (“Washington Wants a Say Over Your Minister,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 5). Specifically, the leaders of the Hosanna-Tabor church in Redford, Mich. tried to force Cheryl Perich to resign because she was diagnosed with narcolepsy. They asserted that Perich’s condition called into question her ability to assume responsibility for the safety of children in her classes. When Perich refused, she was charged with insubordination, which led her to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hosanna-Tabor maintains that Perich’s suit should be dismissed because of what is known as “ministerial exception.” Since Perich was selected by the local congregation as a “commissioned minister,” the courts may not interfere with internal church matters.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, the Holy Family and St. Lawrence Catholic schools fired Christa Dias when she asked her employer about maternity leave options after she became pregnant through artificial insemination (“Baby worth legal fight with church,” cincinnati.com, Dec. 27). Both schools admitted that they terminated her employment only because of the means by which she became pregnant - not because she was unwed. But Dias said that the schools have a double standard in this regard. Men who engage in artificial insemination aren’t fired because they don’t exhibit signs of pregnancy. The case is presently on hold in the U.S. District Court in Cincinnati.

I expect the churches in both the Perich and Dias cases to prevail. Religious schools operate under a completely different set of rules than public schools. In the Perich case, the church is asserting “ministerial exception” as a defense. Although federal statutes banning discrimination based on disability, race, sex, and age contain no exception for church employers, lower courts for the past 40 years have ruled in favor of houses of worship. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Bishop v. Amos in 1987 that religious organizations must be “free to select their own leaders, define their own doctrines, resolve their own disputes, and run their own institutions.”

In the Dias case, the issue is strictly about a contract. The schools involved maintain that she is bound by the terms of her contract calling for her to act as a Catholic. They say Dias knew that from the beginning of her employment as a teacher. If she had been unwilling to do so, Diaz should not have applied for her position as a teacher. The fact that Dias is Christian but not Catholic is irrelevant in their eyes.

I hope that Perich and Dias succeed in their suits because in neither case is their effectiveness in the classroom in question. In my opinion, that should be the sole concern. Supporters of religious schools counter that I don’t appreciate the mission of such schools. They argue that teaching values by example is as crucial as teaching subject matter. Only parents can decide if that is so. I don’t doubt that there will always be some talented college graduates who are willing to dedicate their careers and lives accordingly. But I think the court decisions that I anticipate will serve as disincentives for the younger generation to teach in religious schools.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.