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.”
Applause and criticism
Notre Dame Law Professor Rick Garnett said the decision was a “resounding win for religious liberty,” and “one of the Court’s most important church-state decisions in decades.”
“This case is highly significant because it reminds us all that the separation of church and state is an important mechanism for protecting the liberty of all – believers and nonbelievers alike,” he said in a statement.
Others saw the ruling as a step backward. The Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the decision affirms a right of religious groups to ignore antidiscrimination laws in some cases.
“Clergy who are fired for reasons unrelated to matters of theology – no matter how capricious or venal those reasons may be – have just had the courthouse door slammed in their faces,” Mr. Lynn said in a statement.
Details of the case
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.
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.
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.