Court Ruling Landmark for Religion; Justices Allow Firing of Teacher by Church in Bias Case Brought by Government

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 12, 2012 | Go to article overview

Court Ruling Landmark for Religion; Justices Allow Firing of Teacher by Church in Bias Case Brought by Government


Byline: Valerie Richardson, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Religious organizations won a landmark victory Wednesday as the Supreme Court held that churches have the right to make employment decisions free from government interference over discrimination laws.

In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court endorsed for the first time the ministerial exception to state and federal employment discrimination laws while rejecting the Obama administration's argument that churches should be treated no differently than other employers.

The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission, said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who wrote the court's 39-page opinion.

When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us, Chief Justice Roberts said. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.

Allowing former employees to file anti-discrimination lawsuits could end up forcing churches to take religious leaders they no longer want, he said.

Advocates of religious liberty hailed the ruling as a crucial win for churches in the face of government encroachment.

We are pleased that the Supreme Court rejected the Obama administration's profoundly troubling claim of power over churches, and glad to see that the Supreme Court has stayed out of the Lutheran Church's affairs and allowed its internal rules as a body of believers to stand, said Ken Klukowski, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council.

The case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, centered on a former teacher, Cheryl Perich, who argued that she was fired from the Missouri Synod Lutheran school in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Mrs. Perich had been promoted from a temporary lay teacher to a called teacher in 2000, but had taken leave after being diagnosed with narcolepsy. School officials refused to hire her back because they had already replaced her with a substitute for the year. After she threatened to sue to get her job back, the Redford, Mich., church fired her, saying using secular courts to solve an interchurch issue violated its teaching on resolving such disputes.

After the EEOC sued on her behalf, a federal judge threw out the lawsuit, holding that her firing fell under the law's ministerial exception. But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor, holding that the ministerial exception failed to apply because Mrs. …

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