The separation of church and state has always been a tough subject. While the topic does not relate to the majority of us in regards to employment issues, it can affect anyone employed by a church, religious school, or other religious institution.
“Ministerial exception” is a doctrine that was put in place to allow religious institutions the ability to hire individuals that they feel are most qualified to minister to their followers without government intervention. For example, a Lutheran church cannot be sued for discrimination for failing to hire a rabbi for a religious leadership position within the church. However, the subject becomes more unclear when it is applied to other positions within a religious institution.
In the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, a fourth-grade teacher at the religious school was terminated after several months of not being able to work due to undiagnosed narcolepsy. After she was diagnosed, her doctors cleared her to return to work with the appropriate medication. The school was concerned about her ability to perform her teaching duties and asked her to leave the school voluntarily and waive her disability. She refused, threatening legal action if she was not reinstated, and she was fired.
Ms. Perich, the dismissed teacher, contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and filed a wrongful termination suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court dismissed the case, stating Ms. Perich was included under the ministerial exception because she taught at a religious school. Ms. Perich and the EEOC appealed, stating that only 45 minutes of her 7-hour days were spent in religious activity; the rest of her work was secular. They won the appeal, and the case is headed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court’s ruling could have a widespread effect on how people employed by religious institutions are viewed. If the court decides in favor of the school, more than 300,000 parochial school teachers could potentially no longer be covered by Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination. If the court broadens the ministerial exception to include anyone working for a religious institution, hundreds of thousands of others could be affected – secretarial and custodial staff, cafeteria workers, doctors and nurses at hospitals with religious affiliations, all who probably believe they are currently covered under employment protections.
If the court rules in favor of the teacher and the EEOC, more issues that have been handled in the past within the religious institution may become cases for the court, forcing religion-based decisions to be argued in a secular setting.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments beginning October 5, 2011.
Kentucky lawyers Charles Miller and Rheanne Falkner of Miller & Falkner, in Louisville, assist individuals with all types of employment law issues, including workplace discrimination, wrongful termination, and sexual harassment.
An Issue of Church Autonomy: The Supreme Court Examines the Ministerial Exception Doctrine; Liberty Magazine; Howard Friedman
Will Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC Give Hope to the Headleys?; August 17, 2011
Hall Monitors as Ministers; The Courier-Journal; Peter Smith; September 5, 2011