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Landmark Supreme Court ruling a 'resounding win' for religious groups

The Supreme Court decides unanimously that the First Amendment bars government interference in a religious group's decision to fire a minister. Critics say the ruling protects religious groups that fire people for the most venal reasons.

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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.

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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.

How the courts ruled

A federal judge sided with the church and threw the suit out, but a three-judge panel at the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that Perich could pursue her lawsuit.

The Sixth Circuit rejected the church’s claim that the suit should be barred by the ministerial exception.

In reversing that decision, the high court said the Sixth Circuit panel failed to consider the importance of Perich’s status as a “commissioned minister.” The high court also said the appeals court erred by basing its decision in part on the amount of time Perich spent each day performing secular versus religious duties.

“The issue before us … is not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “The amount of time an employee spends on particular activities is relevant in assessing that employee’s status, but that factor cannot be considered in isolation without regard to the nature of the religious functions performed.”

In her initial lawsuit, Perich and the EEOC sought to force the Lutheran Church to reinstate her to her old position. That action, Roberts said, would have violated the First Amendment’s prohibition on government involvement in matters of faith.

“By requiring the Church to accept a minister it did not want, such an order would have plainly violated the Church’s freedom under the Religion Clauses to select its own ministers,” Roberts said.

The chief justices also rejected a claim by Perich and her lawyers that the church’s religious reason for firing her was merely a pretext to strengthen their case.

“That suggestion misses the point of the ministerial exception,” Roberts said. “The purpose of the exception is not to safeguard a church’s decision to fire a minister only when it is made for a religious reason,” he said. “The exception instead ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful – a matter strictly ecclesiastical – is the church’s alone.”

Roberts noted that Wednesday’s ruling was limited to an employment discrimination suit filed by, or on behalf of, a minister. “We express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortuous conduct by their religious employers,” he said.

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