Unanimous U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Right of Churches to Keep Government Out of Hiring, Firing Decisions

(WASHINGTON, DC) In a unanimous ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C., the United States Supreme Court has affirmed that churches have a First Amendment right to keep the government out of its employment decisions. The case tested the limits of “ministerial exception,” a First Amendment doctrine that bars many employment-related lawsuits brought against religious organizations by employees performing religious functions. In deciding the case, the Court determined that the ministerial exception can be applied to a teacher at a religious elementary school who teaches the full secular curriculum, but also teaches daily religion classes, is a commissioned minister and regularly leads students in prayer and worship. Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute filed a “friend of the court” brief in the case on behalf of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, asking the Court to adopt a standard that defers to the church’s determination of whether and how an employee is important to the spiritual mission of the church.

The Supreme Court opinion and The Rutherford Institute’s amicus brief in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C. are available at http://www.rutherford.org.

“This is an important victory for religious freedom. When a church is forced to make employment decisions based on a lawsuit rather than spiritual needs, the end result is that its core activities and spiritual message are inevitably altered in order to accommodate or protect against government pressures or expectations,” stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Churches must be free to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church governance as well as those of faith and doctrine.”

The case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C. relates to an employment claim made by Cheryl Perich, who was hired as a “called” teacher for Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in 2000. As a “called” teacher, Perich had to be recommended for appointment by the church’s elders and board of directors. Perich taught math, language arts, social studies, science, gym, art and music. She also taught a religion class four days per week (two hours total), attended chapel with her class once a week and led chapel services twice a year. In June 2004, Perich fell ill, was placed on disability and eventually was diagnosed with narcolepsy. When the school began the process of cutting ties with Perich because she could not perform her duties, Perich brought a claim against the school under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The claim was dismissed under the “ministerial exception” doctrine, which precludes courts from becoming involved in claims that would decide the employment relationship of “ministerial” employees. However, the dismissal was overturned on appeal by the Sixth Circuit.

In filing an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute asked the Court to reject the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling that whether an employee is a “minister” for purposes of this exemption depends on whether “the employee’s primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship.”

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