“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the court.
“But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.” When those principles are in conflict, Roberts said, “the First Amendment has struck the balance for us.”
The ruling came in the case of Cheryl Perich, a teacher who complained that Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich., violated the Americans With Disabilities Act in 2005 when it fired her after she received a narcolepsy diagnosis.
Richard W. Garnett, director of Notre Dame Law School’s Program in Church, State, and Society, said the ruling is the court’s most important decision on religious freedom in decades.
“The government doesn’t get to second-guess religious communities’ decisions about who should be their teachers, leaders and ministers,” he said.
Those who had supported Perich said the decision threatened equal application of the law.
“Blatant discrimination is a social evil we have worked hard to eradicate in the United States,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “I’m afraid the court’s ruling today will make it harder to combat.”
The justices did not provide a “rigid formula” for determining who is covered by the “ministerial exception” or whether it bars other types of suits.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Obama administration had backed Perich’s lawsuit against the religious school.
Perich joined the school as a “lay teacher” in 1999 and then underwent extensive religious training. She became a “called” teacher, expected to perform her job “according to the Word of God and the confessional standards of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as drawn from the Sacred Scriptures.” She became ill in 2004, but said she was ready to return to work in 2005.
The school said that it had hired another teacher and that there was no place for her. When she threatened to sue to get her job back, she was fired for “insubordination and disruptive behavior.” Church and school leaders said her actions violated a doctrine of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod that says disputes should be resolved within the church rather than in court.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit said Perich did not qualify as a minister because her duties as a called teacher were the same as those of a lay teacher.