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Supreme Court justices find government line in church-state case 'amazing'

The Supreme Court hears arguments in the case of a women who says she was discriminated against when she was fired from a religious school. The school claims First Amendment protections, but government lawyers are suggesting church-state concerns don't apply.

By Staff writer / October 5, 2011

Chief Justice John Roberts (r.) and Justice Elena Kagan walk down the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, Oct. 1, 2010. Justice Kagan and others were surprised by the government's claim that religion had no baring in the case of a teacher being fired from a religious school.

Evan Vucci/AP/FILE

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Washington

In an important test of the boundaries of the separation of church and state, the US Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments in a case examining whether a parochial school teacher may be barred from filing a discrimination lawsuit against her employer when the suit might entangle government in matters of religious faith.

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The high court is being asked to decide whether Cheryl Perich and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) may sue the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich., for allegedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The school argues that such a suit is barred under a First Amendment doctrine that recognizes a “ministerial exception” from such litigation because it would require judges to interfere in the pastoral and religious mission of the school.

Lawyers for the EEOC and for the teacher say Ms. Perich was fired in retaliation for filing a discrimination lawsuit against the school. They say there is no “ministerial exception” that would allow religious organizations to fire with impunity an employee whose job primarily involves teaching secular subjects to her students.

The high court has never before identified the contours of the ministerial exception, although such an exception has been recognized and upheld in the lower courts. It has been found to clearly apply to a pastor, priest, or rabbi, but less clear is whether it applies to other employees involved in religious duties.

The Obama administration, arguing on behalf of the EEOC, urged the court to reject the claims of the Lutheran Church and embrace a line of analysis that would have virtually eliminated the ministerial exception.

Some justices shocked

Leondra Kruger, an assistant solicitor general, said the government was basing its argument on a section of the First Amendment that guarantees the freedom of individuals to associate with each other.

Some justices took issue with the position, wondering why the solicitor general’s office wasn’t analyzing the issue through the First Amendment’s religion clauses. The two religion clauses bar the government from establishing a state-favored religion, while prohibiting laws that infringe the free exercise of religion.

The two clauses are widely considered the backbone of religious freedom in the US.

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