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Michigan woman's case addressing "ministerial exception" to discrimination claims is argued before US Supreme Court

This week the US Supreme Court heard arguments on the thorny issue of relgious freedom,  where allegations of illegal discrimination are raised.  A Michigan woman, Cheryl Perich, attempted to sue the Lutheran Church where she was a teacher, alleging disability discrimination and illegal retaliation.  Perich claims that she was fired in retaliation for seeking accommodation for her narcolepsy diagnosis.

It is illegal to fire someone who raises a disability discrimination issue, just as it is illegal to fire someone because  he or she is black or a woman, or a Muslim or Jehova's Witness.  Nevertheless, blind application of the civil rights laws applicable in these situations would, for example, allow Catholic women to sue the Catholic Church for failing to ordain them as priests.  As a result, a so-called "ministerial exception" has been created by the courts that renders religious organizations immune from this form of civil obligation.  The ADA includes a specific clause recognizing that a "religious organization may require that all applicants and employees conform to the religious tenets of the organization."  Ms. Perich's religious faith is not an issue in this case.

Supporters of Ms. Perich's claim argue that a complete grant of immunity to religious organizations would allow them, for example, to refuse to hire blacks or women, where the tenets of the organization's faith did not require this result, and to fire employees for alll manner of illegal reasons unrelated to the tenets of the organization's faith.  Opponents of Ms. Perich's claim fear any intrusion into the operation of the religious organization and stress the complete separation of church and state (something that some of the same supporters decry when it interferes with matters such as prayer in schools or display of religious symbols on public property, unfortunately).

Reporters who attended the oral argument before the Supreme Court reported that several of the Justices were troubled by the extreme argument proffered by both sides of the case.

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