The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether a teacher at a religious school falls under a widely recognized exception to employment-discrimination laws for ministers and other church leaders.
The justices on March 28 accepted an appeal from a Lutheran church and elementary school in Redford, Mich. The appeal argues that lower courts are divided about whether religious-school teachers are subject to the “ministerial exception” to job-bias laws. The exception bars lawsuits that interfere in the relationship between a religious organization and its employees who perform religious functions.
The case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (No. 10-553), involves Cheryl Perich, a 4th grade teacher at the school who got into a dispute over her return from a medical leave for narcolepsy during the 2004-05 school year.
Ms. Perich was a “called teacher” under the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, meaning she was trained in the church’s theology and selected for her job by voting members of the local church. According to court papers, she taught a secular 4th grade curriculum but also provided religious instruction on some days and led devotional exercises.
The church fired Ms. Perich amid the dispute over her medical leave. She filed a charge of discrimination and retaliation with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which took her side and sued the church under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
A federal district court ruled for the church, but in March 2010, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled 2-1 for the teacher. The court said Ms. Perich was not subject to the ministerial exception because she spent most of her day teaching secular subjects. The church’s appeal to the Supreme Court said, “The courts here have no business reinstating a commissioned minister and called teacher who teaches religion and leads children in worship.”
A brief filed on behalf of Ms. Perich urged the high court not to take the case, saying that religious organizations are seeking “wide leeway to avoid the federal statutory prohibitions on discrimination.”
The court will hear arguments in the case during its term that begins in October.
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2011 edition of Education Week as Exemption for Religious Educators to Be Weighed