Can Churches Fire Employees Who Are Not Ministers?

Today the Supreme Court heard a case centering around whether teachers in religious schools should be exempt from civil rights laws.

In 1999, Cheryl Perich began teaching at Hosanna-Tabor, a Lutheran Church-run school in eastern Michigan. Initially, she was a contract teacher. She later became a “called teacher” after she finished coursework at a Lutheran University.

Perich primarily taught math and science, but she also led her classes in prayer, gave the homily in chapel several times a year, and taught a religion class for 45 minutes a day.

So was she a religious teacher or a secular teacher? The distinction would become important later on…

During the 2004-2005 school year, Perich went on disability leave because she was diagnosed with narcolepsy.

… her doctor expected her to be able to return to full-time work in two to three months. The following month, the school changed its health insurance policy, hired another teacher and suggested that Perich resign. When she refused and threatened to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act, she was fired.

So Perich sued (for real) for a different reason: the Americans with Disabilities Act specifically says you cannot fire someone in retaliation for them threatening to sue you.

But that’s a government law, said the Lutheran leaders. Their argument was that since Perich was more of a religious teacher than a secular one, she had to abide by Church law, not federal law. And Church doctrine said that she should’ve handled the issue internally. By threatening to sue, she was taking the matter outside the church and that gave them the right to fire her under what’s being called the “ministerial exception.” Basically, churches don’t have to comply with federal discrimination laws when it comes to hiring/firing ministers. (That’s why a Catholic Church can’t get sued for refusing to hire a Muslim.)

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Perich. They said she taught more secular classes than religious ones. (They even calculated the time spent in each area.)

Now the Supreme Court has to decide (PDF) who’s in the right. If the Church wins, it could mean that religious groups could effectively stifle any employee considered a “minister” from filing a lawsuit against them. Who’s considered a minister? Good question. According to law professor Howard Friedman, it could include the “cook in the kosher cafeteria of a Jewish day school, the school nurse in a Catholic middle school, or the recess monitor in a Christian elementary school.” What about the janitor? Isn’t he or she indirectly helping the church?

Even the Justices aren’t sure how slippery the slope could get:

Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked whether a church should be allowed to invoke the ministerial exception in the case of “a teacher who reports sexual abuse to the government and is fired because of that reporting.”

Sadly, religious denominations everywhere are overwhelmingly supporting the Church on this issue. The only major denomination to support Perich is the Unitarian Universalist Association (go UUs!).

Overall, expanding the definition of “ministerial” employees to include teachers and other workers seems like a bad idea. Churches receive plenty of benefits from the government as is, including tax-exemptions (and even those are flaunted). There’s no reason they should also be able to get away with firing someone who works for them in a primarily non-religious capacity.

The Supreme Court’s decision is expected in June.

(via Get Religion)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Robert

    I imagine that many of the supporters of the church also complain about ‘creeping Sharia’…

    • Jeff Ritter

      I was going to point out the very same thing. That was actually the first thing that popped in my head when I read that she must abide by church law and not federal law. I get the ministerial exception in general. A Catholic shouldn’t “have” to hire an atheist just because.  That makes some sense to me, but this stretching of the label does not bode well for anyone.

  • Gus Snarp

    I would like to see this case lead to either the elimination of the ministerial exception entirely, or else it becoming very narrowly defined. I understand we don’t want the government choosing ministers for churches, but I don’t think that’s remotely what this is about. A church should have the right to not hire a minister that is not a member of that religion, but outside of that they should not be granted any exception at all to anti-discrimination laws, certainly not to the ADA. Whatever the level of exception they are granted, the role of minister should be tightly restricted to people who mainly perform religious duties. Teachers shouldn’t count unless religious doctrine is their main subject, and even then they should only be discriminated against based on their faith, nothing else. I hope the court rules the right way on this. Freedom of religion should not mean churches are exempt from the law. From the transcripts so far, the justices are entertaining some absurd arguments, but they often do without it really indicating how they’ll rule.

    One way or the other though, that Lutheran school has proven once again that religion cannot claim to be a moral arbiter. Also, they’re jerks.  And I only say “jerks” because I’m not sure what kind of language is permitted here.

    • Anonymous

      I agree.  I don’t think a person should considered in a ministerial position unless it’s an ordained position.  Even then, the ministerial exception seems fishy.  I’m OK with a religious organization requiring a person to be in the religion in question, but the point of the ADA has nothing to do with religion.

  • Anonymous

    It shouldn’t even matter whether she taught mainly religious or secular topics. There should be no such exceptions from the law at all. This is really getting ridiculous

  • Beth

    How can the firing be a religious issue if she was good enough for five years until she took disability leave? I hope Perich is largely being supported over the church in the disability rights community.

    • Gus Snarp

      I think their argument is that by threatening to resolve the issue outside the church she was violating church doctrine, and therefore couldn’t serve in her “ministerial” position anymore. Of course that’s utter bull, and I really hope the court will deliver a blistering smack down on this case.  I’m not sure whether they will though.

      • TheBlackCat

        She was going fo be fired *ahem* “forced to resign”.  So her choices were: take things outside the school and get fired with possible legal recourse, or do nothing and definitely get fired with no recourse whatsoever (you know that if she accepted the “forced resignation” they would be arguing that she didn’t have any right to sue because she left voluntarily, and I would be surprised if they would be stupid enough to leave a paper trail for her to use) .

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

      Considering the shoddy treatment of the disabled by churches…. (“It’s part of God’s Plan” *gag*)

  • workingdog

    I think the word you want is flouted, not flaunted.

  • Gabriel

    I love how this church practices what it preaches. I am sure there has been many sermons along the lines of the time when Jesus said “Fuck the sick and the poor. I hate losers.”

    • Blue Duck

      Exactly, Gabriel!!  If this school had been practicing this “Christian compassion”  we hear about, wouldn’t they have worked hard to help this woman get back health?  It’s not like waiting a whole 3 months is a long time to wait for someone to be able to return to work full time.  But no; they push her out AND thus also cause her to lose her health insurance (since it is tied to her employer).

      Way to be real classy there, Lutherans.  I keep hearing ’bout this Christian compassion stuff, but I rarely see it in action.

  • http://twitter.com/0xabad1dea Melissa E

    I think this is the first time in my life I have ever heard a church actually invoke the “Christians don’t sue Christians” rule. Imagine if that was actually practiced by everyone identifying as Christian.

  • dartigen …

    What would be more helpful would be a) taking this as a discrimination case (which it is; they have dismissed her after being diagnosed with a disability, and I would say that the firing was because of the disability, which is discrimination; narcolepsy is treatable and even if it was an untreatable case she should still be given the option of staying on in a less demanding position) and b) creating a legal definition of who is and is not a minister.

    In my view, a minister is a minister. The only ministers are ordained positions. A teacher is not a minister. A cook is not a minister. Only ordained positions are subject to the ‘ministerial exception’.

    (I’ve never even heard of a ministerial exception. As far as I know here in Australia ministers and ordained personnel are employees of a church, and so can be hired and fired like employees, and fall under all the relevant Acts.)

  • Anonymous

    As a Minister of the Galaxy, I only need to abide by church law and not federal law. 

  • Anonymous

    How could they try to make her resign when she was sick? Doesn’t she have job protection under US legislation?

  • b00ger

    I saw coverage of this on Fox News last night. I’m not in the normal habit of watching it, but it was on in the gym while I was running. They really made it sound like she was not a member of the particular religion in question and that’s what the church was fighting for. The right to fire a non-Lutheran. From this article it sounds like she actually is a Lutheran, but ran afoul of some arbitrary church rule. 

    The difference may be subtle, but I think its’ a a key difference. Whether or not they can hire and fire based on religion should be totally different that other restrictions, such as whether or not they have to abide by the ADA. The ministerial exemption should only apply to ordained ministers – the leaders of the congregation – not to someone who occasionally teaches religion class or leads a prayer. Also, it should be narrowly defined to only apply to that person’s particular religion (I guess sex too, or you’d cause a big stir with the female hating religions) However, they should be made to fully comply with the ADA and other similar type laws.

    • Gus Snarp

      Screw the female hating religions.

  • Imaginarilee

    Churches’ ability to discriminate with regards to hiring someone with respect to their religion: I agree an exemption is legitimate. However, the idea that they can flagrantly violate civil rights acts UNRELATED TO RELIGION is pure bullshit. We’re talking about disability rights! Religion has no right to ignore federal laws in this matter. This is even beside the question on the legitimacy of religion’s rights, period. This sort of crap has nothing to do with their freedoms, only a heartless, economically motivated desire to deprive someone of their rights as a worker.

  • Tom Horwitz

    It does not surprise me that the Unitarians have come to support the plaintiff.  As an aside, Unitarian Universalist churches can provide atheists something that they don’t have but that church-goers do have – community.  The UU church I belong to encourages and promotes rationality.  There are some atheist members whose religious views are welcomed and discussed.  At a UU church, an atheist can congregate with theists, and attend pot-luck dinners with them, without being dismissed as a god-hater.

  • http://twitter.com/butterflyfish_ Heidi McClure

    Why is there a “ministerial” exception in the first place? Obviously a Muslim who hasn’t studied and become a Christian minister is not qualified to be a Christian minister. That doesn’t seem like something that needs special protection.

    As for the teacher, perhaps going forward church-affiliated schools should hire religious teachers the way they hire art & music teachers. The school has one teacher who only teaches religious studies. Then either the kids can go down to the religion room or that teacher can come into the regular classroom while the real teacher has a free period.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for  pointing out this shameful, embarrassing example of Christians failing to love one another. Sheesh! 

    Those of us who claim to follow Jesus should be caring for everyone above and beyond what the law says. And using the law to avoid caring for one another was just the kind of thing Jesus attacked! 

    What prize do we get once we amass a gazillion hypocrite points?

    My “Charlie Brown face” is red with shame.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      duhsciple, your chagrin sounds downright painful. You personally don’t deserve such distress, but of course it’s your empathic, compassionate, and conscientious nature that makes you susceptible to it.  Part of the package of being a deeply human human.

  • Anonymous

    I hope that church gets their balls handed to them.

  • Anonymous

    I hope that church gets their balls handed to them.

  • Erp

    BTW the school is Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (much more conservative than Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, it has no women ministers and still debates whether women should have the vote in church matters; though, unlike the even more conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, most congregations do give women the vote). 

    There is a list of amicus briefs at http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/hosanna-tabor-evangelical-lutheran-church-and-school-v-eeoc/

    Also there are actually a few other religious groups supporting the poor teacher.  These are the National Council of Jewish Women and Sikh Council on Religion and Education (look in the Americans United … bried).     However the United Sikhs are against the teacher.

    The Catholic church, the Episcopal church, the Mormons, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish congregations came out against.  Also against the teacher were the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodists, and the the United Church of Christ (so all of the major progressive Christian churches are against.  Also against are the Southern Baptists,Council of Hindu Temples, Seventh Day Adventists and 8 states.

    • Anonymous

      No surprise really. This isn’t really about this specific situation for them. They fear that they’ll lose their privileges and won’t be able to discriminate in other areas anymore

  • Anonymous

    If secular corporations could use this excuse to get away with not paying sick leave, they would, too. It seems to me religious institutions have found a way to exploit the system while crying, “Freedom of religion” all the way to the bank. Enough already.

  • Anonymous

    It seems pretty clear cut to me.  She was hired, not as a minister but as a teacher.  Exceptions should necessarily be tightly defined or they aren’t exceptions at all.  If someone’s employment contract fails to define them as having a ministerial role then they cannot fall under this exception.

  • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

    Why does a church need a health insurance policy at all? If they’re doing God’s work, shouldn’t God provide?

  • Guardianangel3124

    Hopefully, they get rid of ministerial exception, unless it is in the best interest of the church (the minister causes some kind of scandal for the church). I can’t see where the church would have a right to fire her — unless she either wasn’t Lutheran, where they shouldn’t have hired her in the first place — unless she lied to them about her faith. Even religious teachers are not ministers.

    It seems like they were looking for some reason to fire her or force her to resign after she was diagnosed. Most doctors are not going to verify your disability — unless you are rich and famous, unless you really have it, which teachers, particularly ones that work at parochial (church-based schools),  don’t make a lot of money.  Now, I can see if she demanded she be put in that position only and won’t take a less demanding position (i.e. secretary) where it wouldn’t be as risky to herself or anyone else, due to her being alone with the children, since narcolepsy may cause her to fall asleep without warning whether she is on medication that works for her or not. Then, they would be risking being sued by the parents.


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