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Washington • The Supreme Court on Tuesday seemed deeply divided on how far the government can intrude inside the employment practices of churches and religious groups, a decision being closely watched by religious institutions concerned about their independence and by civil rights groups looking out for their employees.
The issue in the dispute between the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich., and former teacher Cheryl Perich is whether a government agency has the right to sue the school on her behalf for firing her after she complained of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Perich was promoted from a temporary lay teacher to a "called" teacher in 2000 at the Redford, Mich., school by a vote of the church's congregation and hired as a commissioned minister. She taught secular classes, as well as a religious class four days a week. She also occasionally led chapel service.
She got sick in 2004 but tried to return to work from disability leave despite being diagnosed with narcolepsy. The school said she couldn't return because they had hired a substitute for that year. They fired her after she showed up and threatened to sue to get her job back.
Perich complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued the church for violations under the disabilities act.
A federal judge threw out the lawsuit, saying that Perich fell under the ADA's ministerial exception, which keeps the government from interfering with church affairs. But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated her lawsuit, saying Perich's "primary function was teaching secular subjects" so the exception didn't apply.
"There was no difference in what she was doing" at the school before she was commissioned and after, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said during the oral arguments. And when a church employee is performing a function that deals with the public such as education, argued lawyer Walter Dellinger, they "ought to be governed by the same rules" as other employers.
The church's lawyer, Douglas Laycock, argued that since Perich was a minister as well as a teacher, and those jobs overlapped, the government could not get involved in the church's hiring and firing decisions.
"If you teach the doctrines of the faith, you are a minister," Laycock said.
Courts normally give a lot of deference to a church's decision of who is a minister and who is not, Justice Samuel Alito said. If they don't, he said, the government then would have to get into the business of deciding who is an official minister of a church and who is not.
"You cannot get away from evaluating religious issues," something courts are not supposed to do, Alito said.
The court will issue a ruling in the spring.
The case is Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 10-553.