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Supreme Court says church can fire teacher with theological duties, regardless of claimed disability discrimination

A case arising out of a Lutheran school in Redford, Michigan, has resulted in a new ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court with regard to the parameters of separation of church and state. Cheryl Perich taught at the Hosanna-Tabor Church school.  Her duties included 45 minutes of religion-related instruction per week.  

Perich claimed that the church violated federal law by discriminating against her medical disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  She filed an EEOC claim and followed-up with a lawsuit.  The school then fired her for resorting to the Courts to resolve her complaint.  Lower courts had ruled that the Church could be held accountable for a violation of federal law.  The Church appealed, seeking a ruling that under the "ministerial exception" to state and federal law, it had the unfettered right to fire anyone involved in teaching church doctrine, even if the employee's "ministerial" duties were relatively insignificant.

The Supreme Court overturned the Sixth Circuit's  ruling, although the Justices could not agree on the precise standard to be applied.  The dissent would have agreed with the proposal that all rights of "association"--whether religious or civic--should be evaluated on the same basis.  The majority of justices rejected this view.  They held that religion holds a special status within the Constitution and must be addressed independently.  They concluded that the ministerial exception to civil law should be applied to all employees whom the Court deems to be "called" ministers, after consideration of several factors. 

A minority of concurring justices, (in an opinion written by Justice Thomas) would have gone even further and allowed the churches to define which employees should be exempt from civil law.  Two concurring justices would have avoided the focus on "ministry" or "ordination" and applied the exception to any employee who leads a religious organization, conducts services or ceremonies, or teaches elements of the faith.

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