Magazine article The Christian Century

Justices Uphold Church Hire-Fire Rights

Magazine article The Christian Century

Justices Uphold Church Hire-Fire Rights

Article excerpt

The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously thrown its support behind a church school that fired a teacher, using a widely watched church-state case to bolster a legal doctrine that exempts religious institutions from some civil rights laws.

Many religious groups heralded the January 11 ruling as a firm assertion of religious freedom that keeps personnel decisions about religious employees where they should be: within a church, synagogue or mosque.

Nevertheless, the 9-0 ruling supporting a Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod church and school in Michigan drew different reactions from two leading groups concerned with First Amendment issues.

"It is a helpful decision explaining the important and unique way that the Constitution protects religious organizations in matters of internal governance," said K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee.

The BJC filed an amicus brief in the case, urging that the High Court explicitly recognize the so-called ministerial exception, a principle commonly recognized in lower courts. The National Council of Churches and the National Association of Evangelicals joined the BJC in its brief.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, however, said the Supreme Court set the bar far too high for employees of religious institutions who seek redress against discrimination.

"The really terrible thing about this decision is that if you fire someone and religion is just a pretext, it can't be addressed by courts," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "It's just a gigantic new exception, a new loophole to the civil rights law for religious groups that will not be shut in a very long time--if ever."

The case of the now-closed HosannaTabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Michigan, revolved around Cheryl Perich. She had been elevated by the Lutheran church that ran the school to a "called teacher" position, one with some religious responsibilities. Though most of her duties were secular, Perich spent part of each day teaching religion and sometimes led chapel services.

Diagnosed with a sleep disorder, Perich took a leave of absence in 2004 and was replaced by another teacher. Cleared by her doctors to return to work, the church refused to reinstate her. …

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