Should Courts Settle Employment Disputes in Churches?

The Supreme Court’s new term began this month, and one of the major cases is giving newer Justices their first chance to directly address the nature of religious freedom. At issue is whether government can trump the judgment of a religious institution as it carries out a faith-based mission–and whether the Court will open yet another pasture for employment litigation.

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the question is whether courts should be able to weigh in on employment disputes within religious institutions. Under what’s known as the “ministerial exception,” all 12 federal circuits have in recent decades said no, recognizing some level of autonomy for hiring decisions within the church.
The Obama Justice Department disagrees, arguing against the ministerial exception entirely. The school’s “request for a broad exemption,” argues Solicitor General Donald Verrilli in his brief, “would critically undermine the protections of the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] and a wide variety of other generally applicable laws.”
The case centers on Cheryl Perich, who in 2004 took a medical leave from her job as a parochial-school teacher in Redford, Michigan. When she sought to return some eight months later, the school declined. Ms. Perich and the EEOC then sued the school for back pay and damages as well as her rehiring. The Lutheran church considers that a violation of its own internal dispute resolution, and Ms. Perich was terminated by a supermajority vote of the church’s congregation.
During her time at the school, Ms. Perich taught a curriculum that included math, social studies and music. She also taught religious classes four days a week, led students in prayer and was considered part of the school’s mission to offer a “Christ-centered education based on biblical principles.”
The Sixth Circuit ruled in Ms. Perich’s favor, arguing that a determination could be made as to which jobs qualify for a ministerial exception by totting up the number of minutes per day or week an employee spends on religious or secular functions. By this metric, they decided, her role as a “commissioned minister” at a parochial school shouldn’t qualify for the exemption.
Source: Wall Street Journal

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