The LCMS has issued a statement saying it “welcomes the United States Supreme Court’s [March 28] decision to hear an important case concerning the First Amendment rights of its member congregations.”
The case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, involves an employment dispute between Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich. — an LCMS member congregation — and Cheryl Perich, a fourth-grade teacher the school dismissed in 2005 for “insubordination and disruptive conduct in violation of church teaching,” according to Hosanna-Tabor’s Petition for Certiorari.
Perich sued the congregation for disability discrimination, claiming the church rescinded her call as a commissioned minister because of her narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that typically causes excessive daytime sleepiness. The teacher later dropped her discrimination claim and now says only that the church retaliated against her for making the original claim.
A federal district court dismissed the case based on the “ministerial exception,” a First Amendment doctrine that bars lawsuits that would interfere in the relationship between a religious organization and employees who perform religious functions.
According to the LCMS statement, that court “recognized that commissioned ministers play a crucial role in the ministry of the church, and that it would violate the First Amendment to force the church to reinstate a minister’s call.”
But the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court and ruled in favor of Perich, holding that the teacher had a predominantly “secular” role because she spent more time each day teaching secular subjects than religious ones.
The key question in the case, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is co-counsel representing Hosanna-Tabor, “is whether the government can force the church to reinstate Perich or whether the First Amendment instead protects the church’s right to select its religious teachers.”
The Becket Fund calls the case “groundbreaking” because the Supreme Court has never before ruled on such a case, and the lower courts are divided over how far the ministerial exception extends and which employees are subject to it.
Lead counsel in the case is Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia School of Law, a leading scholar and Supreme Court practitioner in the area of religious liberty. Laycock says Perich should be subject to the ministerial exception.
“She taught the religion class. She led the prayers. She led the devotionals, which are acts of worship,” he said. “She was a commissioned minister teaching religion and leading worship. The fact that she also taught math and reading doesn’t change any of that.”
The case will likely be argued to the high court this fall, and “the ruling will give the Supreme Court an opportunity to protect the rights of all religious organizations to determine who will perform religious functions,” says the LCMS.
Posted May 5, 2011