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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Bars Narcoleptic Lutheran Teacher’s Suit Against Church School

Posted Jan 11, 2012 10:57 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against a narcoleptic Lutheran school teacher who claimed retaliation when her church school refused to rehire her after disability leave.

The unanimous opinion (PDF) by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. found that the school was protected from suit under the “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws grounded in the First Amendment’s religion clauses.

The religious school in Redford, Mich., had fired teacher Cheryl Perich for insubordination after she reported for work even though administrators said they would not rehire her in the middle of the school year. Roberts said Perich qualified as a “minister” and the Constitution barred the state from influencing a church’s selection of such personnel.

“By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the free exercise clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments,” Roberts wrote. “According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the establishment clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.”

Roberts said Perich had a title of “minister of religion,” was tasked with doing her job “according to the word of God,” and had received special religious training in a formal commissioning process. “Perich’s job duties reflected a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its mission,” Roberts said.

Roberts said the ruling was confined the facts of the case—a fired minister who could not sue for employment discrimination because of the ministerial exception. “We express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers," he said.

The case is Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

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