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Teacher at Lutheran school fired in violation of ADA is not a "ministerial" employee

The EEOC supported Cheryl Perich's lawsuit alleging she was wrongfully terminated by the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The School's website claims that it provides a "Christ-centered education" by "reinforcing bible principals [sic]" by providing role models who "integrate faith into all subjects."  The School's behavior toward Ms. Perich calls these claims into question, and ultimately the Sixth Circuit deemed it must stand trial for its violation of the ADA.

Several cases in recent years have attempted to define when a church-related school must comply with civil rights laws.  Church entities have been attempting to define a broad range of exemptions from civil law by characterizing their employees as "ministerial" and therefore exempt from civil definitions of "fair" or legal behavior.  The Sixth Circuit determined that Hosanna-Tabor's claim of exemption with regard to its treatment of Ms. Perich was unfounded.

Perich was attending a school golf outing when she suddenly became ill and was hospitalized.  An elementary school teacher for a number of years, Perich was unable to return to her position in August because doctors had yet to diagnose her illness.  She was advised that she should apply for a disability leave and told that she would "still have a job" at the school.  Ultimately, doctors diagnosed her condition as "narcolepsy" and authorized her to return to work in February.  Perich had kept the school informed of her medical developments and attempted to return to work when released by her physicians.  The School refused to allow her to resume her job, however, and two weeks later it terminated her employment because she was "disruptive" and "insubordinate" when she refused to leave the premises without a letter confirming that she had attempted to report to work at the termination of her disability, as required by her contract.  The School insisted that she resign and execute a "peaceful release agreement" which Perich refused to do.

The School pointed to the fact that Perich had become a "call" teacher by completing religious instruction required by the school (making her a "commissioned minister") and to the fact that her job included about 45 minutes per day of prayer or other religious classroom activity, to argue that she was a ministerial employee who could not claim any civil rights.  Perich noted that "call" teachers could not be dismissed without cause and that while call teachers were "commissioned ministers" they were not required to be Lutheran.  The bulk of her teaching activities corresponded directly with the curriculum and duties of public school teachers in similar grades.

Analyzing the factual situation in full, the Sixth Circuit concluded that the "ministerial exemption" from civic rights and duties was not broad enough to excuse the school's illegal conduct and its alleged violation of Perich's civil rights.  The case was remanded for further proceedings to determine whether, in fact, Perich could sustain the burden of proving her allegations.

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