Balancing Employment Rights with Freedom of Religion

In a U.S. Supreme Court decision, handed down today, the justices unanimously ruled that churches and religious schools cannot be sued for employment discrimination by their “ministers.”

This probably has little widespread importance, but I thought I would share it anyway. The case is Hosanna Tabor vs EEOC, (PDF) and concerns a religious-school teacher, Cheryl Perich, who was fired by the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Missouri after she had taken a disability leave for narcolepsy.

Perich, who was a “commissioned minister” as opposed to a lay teacher at the school, wanted to return to the school in February 2005 after missing the 2004-2005 school year, according to the Supreme Court opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts. She was told her position had been filled by a lay teacher.

Nonetheless, Perich reported to work in February and refused to leave, threatening to sue the school, which she ultimately did — joining a lawsuit initially filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The suit was dismissed by the district court on a summary judgment, but that decision was reversed by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The High Court today reversed again, dismissing the complaint:

The EEOC and Perich contend that religious organizations can defend against employment discrimination claims by invoking their First Amendment right to freedom of association. They thus see no need — and no basis — for a special rule for ministers grounded in the Religion Clauses themselves. Their position, however, is hard to square with the text of the First Amendment itself, which gives special solicitude to the rights of religious organizations. The Court cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.

Whether this will be the end of the lawsuit is unclear. The opinion notes that “The Court expresses no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits.”