In an important decision affirming the separation of church and state and the freedom of religious groups to manage their own affairs, the US Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that religious organizations are shielded from discrimination lawsuits filed by members who are engaged in ministerial functions.
In a unanimous decision, the high court said the First Amendment bars government interference in the authority of a religious group to determine for itself who will minister to the faithful.
At issue was whether a parochial school teacher fired by the Lutheran congregation that ran her school, could bring a discrimination lawsuit against the church.
After determining that the teacher performed significant religious duties and thus qualified as a minister, the court found that the employment relationship between church and minister was off limits to the government and to the courts.
If the church is free to select its ministers, the court reasoned, it must also be free without government interference to fire those the church deems unworthy to be ministers.
The decision marks the first time the high court has recognized a so-called “ministerial exception,” although every federal appeals court has upheld such an exception.
“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. “But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.”
The chief justice added: “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. The church must be free to choose who will guide it on its way.”
The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by Cheryl Perich, a former teacher at the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich. Ms. Perich claimed in her suit that she was fired in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In June 2004, Perich was diagnosed with narcolepsy, a condition in which she would fall into a sudden and deep sleep from which she could not be awakened. She sought treatment.
The school held her job open for a semester by combining classes, but in January 2005 a replacement was hired.
A dispute arose when Perich sought to return to her job in February 2005. The school board said there were no job openings for a teacher. In addition, the board expressed concern about the safety of the children if Perich collapsed while she was supervising them.
Perich threatened to sue. The church countered that threatening a lawsuit violated the church’s internal-conflict resolution policy. The congregation voted 40 to 11 to fire her.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit on Perich’s behalf charging the church with attempting to retaliate against an employee in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.