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.
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At one point, Justice Elena Kagan asked Ms. Kruger whether she believed that a church has a right grounded in First Amendment religious protections to hire and fire employees without government interference.Skip to next paragraph
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Kruger answered that the government was basing its argument on the freedom of association, rather than the parts of the First Amendment that deal with religious freedom.
“We don’t see that line of church autonomy principles in the religion clause jurisprudence as such,” Kruger replied. “We see it as a question of freedom of association.”
The position surprised several justices, including Justice Kagan, the Obama administration’s former solicitor general, who said she found the comment “amazing.” After the hearing, one representative of a religious association called the government’s position a “full frontal assault on religious liberty.”
Chief Justice John Roberts first raised the issue when he asked whether the administration considered anything “special about the fact that the people involved in this case are part of a religious organization.”
Ms. Kruger said, no, that there was no difference whether the group was a religious group, a labor group, or any other association of individuals.
“That’s extraordinary. That is extraordinary,” Justice Antonin Scalia declared. “We are talking here about the free exercise clause and about the establishment clause, and you say they have no special application?”
“We don’t think that the job duties of a particular religious employee are relevant to the inquiry,” she said.
After the argument, Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia Law School professor who presented the case for the Lutheran church, said he was “encouraged” by the session. He said the justices were “skeptical” of the government’s position.
Mr. Laycock argued that since the teacher in question was the equivalent of a minister and that she taught religious classes to students in addition to secular subjects, the ministerial exception should apply to her case.
Perich also spoke after the argument. “My situation really had nothing to do with religion,” she said.
Perich was employed as one of seven teachers at a K-8 school run by the local Lutheran church. The school had roughly 80 students.
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.