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Corporate Court Okays Religious School’s Discriminatory Firing of Teacher

This morning the Supreme Court issued its decision in Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (.pdf download), holding that the First Amendment prohibits a “called” teacher who has been fired from a religious school from suing for employment discrimination.

Cheryl Perich was a teacher of primarily secular subject matter at Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran School.  Perich became ill in July 2004 and took medical leave. When Perich recovered and adapted to her treatment, she told the school she wanted to return to teaching, but the school expressed concerns about her disability and asked her to resign. Perich told school officials she would file a disability discrimination suit if they could not come to an amicable solution. Soon thereafter, Perich was fired.

The EEOC filed charges against Hosanna-Tabor for illegally retaliating against Perich and firing her for discriminatory reasons. Hosanna-Tabor claimed that its actions were protected by the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The school cited the “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws, which the lower courts of appeal have created and applied for some time, but which has never been acknowledged or approved by the Supreme Court. Under this exception, religious institutions are immune from discrimination suits if a fired employee had primarily religious duties.

Reversing the Sixth Circuit, the Supreme Court held today for the first time that there is a “ministerial exception” to federal employment discrimination laws, including Title VII and the ADA. The Court then proceeded to apply a totality of the circumstances test to conclude that Perich was a “minister” and that therefore the ministerial exception applies and her suit is barred. Focusing on Perich’s religious training, title, and the religious duties that she performed, the Court downplayed the fact that the vast majority of her duties were secular and that most of her religious duties were also performed by lay teachers.

By siding with Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court has rendered religious schools immune from suit for discriminating or retaliating against employees for reasons unrelated to religious doctrine. This makes it difficult for teachers to speak out against misdeeds within religious schools and institutions for fear of retaliation, and allows religious institutions to discriminate with impunity.