Supreme Court Decision Allows Disability Discrimination

Freedom of religion trumps protection against discrimination. The lesson? Teach and promote disability rights in your congregation.

The US Supreme Count just decided that a teacher in a religious school may not sue the school for disability-based employment discrimination.

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a long-time teacher experienced health problems that were diagnosed as narcolepsy.  The disorder caused her to take a health-related leave of absence.  When her doctor determined that she was ready to return to work, the school told her that her services were no longer needed.  When she threatened to sue, the school issued a formal termination for doing so, stating that her actions violated the school’s religious doctrine of working out disputes internally.

The Supreme Court applied its “ministerial exception” which says the First Amendment’s freedom of religion provisions limit legal claims against religious organizations and their personnel.  The question in this case was whether the teacher, Cheryl Perich, should come within the exception.  She argued that even though she had the status of a “called” teacher who had some religious duties and provided some religious instruction, most of her duties were not religious and all of her job duties were performed by other teachers who are deemed “lay” and not considered ministerial by the school.  She also argued that the school’s stated reason for firing her – her failure to resolve disputes internally – was a pretext for their real reason: disability-based discrimination.

The Court, in a 9-0 decision, did not agree with Ms. Perich.  The decision said that it would not create a test for deciding when a person is a “minister” and can be discriminated against without interference by the courts.  It was convinced, however, that Ms. Perich did fall into this category.

Since it appears clear that Ms. Perich was the victim of disability-based discrimination, does this decision allow religions to run roughshod over people’s human rights?  No.

First, the decision notes that this decision does not say that religions are exempt from the criminal law.

Second, the Court discusses a case from Oregon in which the state denied unemployment benefits to a Native American who had been fired for ingesting peyote in a religious ceremony.  In that case, the Supreme Court upheld the denial because the state law was a “valid and neutral law of general applicability” that “involved government regulation of only outward physical acts.”  The case of Ms. Perich, “in contrast, concerns government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.”

Third, Ms. Perich’s claim that the reason for her firing was pretextual, “misses the point of the ministerial exception. 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. The exception instead ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful—a matter “strictly eccle­siastical.”

Finally, the opinion wraps up by stating that it holds only that the ministe­rial exception bars a suit “brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church’s decision to fire her.”  It concludes: “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.”

In an interesting concurring opinion, jointly penned by a Catholic and a Jewish justice, it is noted that many religions do not have “ministers” and that many religious figures are not formally “ordained” or appointed.  What matters to them is not, for example, Ms. Perich’s title, but whether she “played an important role as an instrument of her church’s religious message and as a leader of its worship activities.” If so, a religious body has the right to decide for itself whether an employee is reli­giously qualified to remain in office.

The lesson for disability rights advocates who are affiliated with religious groups is to become active within your congregation and religious organization to teach and promote the tenants of disability rights.  Justice is not a matter for only the secular courts.

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