Supreme Court Backs Church in Teacher-Employment Case

By Mark Walsh — January 11, 2012 5 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled unanimously that the Constitution’s religion clauses bar lawsuits against churches by their ministers, and it held that a Lutheran school teacher could not sue her church employer for discrimination because she was effectively a minister.

“The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. “Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, ... interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.”

The ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Case No. 10-553) was without dissent, which was a surprise given the sharp disagreement among interest groups that filed briefs and from the tenor of oral arguments in the case.

The dispute involved Cheryl Perich, a 4th grade teacher at Hosanna-Tabor in Redford, Mich., who mostly taught secular subjects but was a “commissioned minister” of the Lutheran faith. After she took a leave of absence during the 2004-05 school year because she suffered from narcolepsy, Perich sought to return to her job but clashed with church officials, who threatened to fire her.

When she threatened a lawsuit, the church dismissed her, and Perich complained to the EEOC. She claimed that the church violated her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 over its handling of her disability leave. The federal EEOC took up her case solely on the claim that the church had retaliated against her in violation of the ADA.

The church sought dismissal of the suit based on the “ministerial exception,” a principle recognized in lower federal courts but never ruled on by the Supreme Court until Wednesday. Perich’s suit was barred by the First Amendment’s religion clauses, the church said, because the claims concerned the employment relationship between a religious institution and one of its ministers.

The church won in a federal district court but lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, which held that Perich was not a minister because her duties as a “called teacher” of the Lutheran faith were essentially identical to her duties as that of a lay teacher at the church school.

In his opinion for the court, Chief Justice Roberts noted that church-state controversies over religious offices go back at least as far as the Magna Carta, which sought to guarantee that “the English church shall be free.”

Roberts said that by imposing an unwanted minister on a church, the state would infringe the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion, “which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.”

Roberts went on to explain that there were numerous reasons why Perich qualified as a minister of the Lutheran church, and thus the church was entitled to the ministerial exception for its employment of her. Perich had formal religious training as a “commissioned minister” of the church, he noted, and she held herself out as a minister by accepting a formal call to service and by accepting a housing allowance available only to those in the ministry. She also taught her students religion four days a week and took them to chapel services once a week, the chief justice noted.

The lower appeals court erred by focusing on Perich’s secular duties, Roberts said.

“It is true that her religious duties consumed only 45 minutes of each workday, and that the rest of her day was devoted to teaching secular subjects,” the chief justice said. “The issue before us, however, is not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch.”

“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Roberts said. “But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.”

Justice Clarence Thomas said in a concurrence that courts should defer to a religious organization’s “good-faith understanding of who qualifies as a minister.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., in a concurrence joined by Justice Elena Kagan, stressed that the ministerial exception was not limited to covering those church employees with formal religious training.

“It should apply to any ‘employee’ who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith,” Justice Alito said. “While a purely secular teacher would not qualify for the ‘ministerial’ exception, the constitutional protection of religious teachers is not somehow diminished when they take on secular functions in addition to their religious ones.”

The decision sparked sharply differing reactions.

“The need of churches to have control over the selection of people who serve as their ministers and their religious teachers is pretty central to the First Amendment, and the Supreme Court agreed,” said Douglas Laycock, a professor of law and religion at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, a noted scholar of the religion clauses who argued the Michigan church’s case before the justices.

Christopher C. Lund, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, who wrote a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which employs nearly 10,000 teachers at its nearly 1,100 parochial schools, said the two sides in the dispute “offered very different approaches to church and state, and the court adopted quite a sweeping view of religious freedom.”

But the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, said in an interview that the decision “allows a religious body to declare employees to be ‘ministers’ and then fire them or treat them shabbily for any reason, religious or otherwise. ... It’s astonishing.”

Leslie C. Griffin, a constitutional law professor at the University of Houston Law Center, who organized a friend-of-the-court brief by law professors on behalf of the fired teacher, said,” I think this was a key place for the court to not say that religious employers can treat their employees any way they like. Why would you want to give religions the green light to discriminate?”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.