BY DYLAN SKRILOFF
In a case that could have opened a terrible Pandora’s box if ruled incorrectly, the United States Supreme Court voted to uphold a church’s right to fire clergy with impunity. To hold churches accountable to federal employment regulations on matters of clergy would open them to unconstitutional state interference, a unanimous court decided.
“By requiring the Church to accept a minister it did not want, such an order would have plainly violated the Church’s freedom under the Religion Clauses to select its own ministers,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion. Three concurrences were written in support of the decision, and the court also promised to deal with a few loopholes their ruling left.
The case in question was brought by Cheryl Perich, a former teacher at the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich., and argued on her behalf by President Obama’s Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Through internal documents, the court also established that Perich was a member of the church clergy, a factor which ultimately proved important in the case, as at the center of the ruling was an existing precedent known as the “Minister’s Exemption.”
Perich had been terminated following a bout with narcolepsy. The school kept her position open for a semester in anticipation that she’d recover, and then replaced her after six months passed.
When she was not offered the job back and some wrangling ensued, she threatened to file litigation against the school and church, stating her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act had been violated.
The church congregation responded by firing her, as a threat of an external lawsuit violated church code. Perich said being fired after her threat of a lawsuit represented unlawful retaliation under the ADA.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agreed with Perich and pursued a lawsuit on her behalf. In lower courts, the already established “Minister’s Exemption” to employment laws was cited, and was successful, but in a surprise, the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in Perich’s favor, focusin on her status as a teacher.
The high court ruled that the 6th Circuit failed to consider the fact that Perich was an ordained minister and that the church was afforded special protections from state interference in such matters.
The justices did leave one issue that they promised to address in the future. The ruling said the court was aware of the paradox of having any role whatsoever in determining what constituted minister or clergy for legal purposes. Since this term can be subject to interpretation, if the court created any standard for it, the court would be improperly interfering in religious affairs.
Roberts promised the court would find an elegant and appropriate way to rectify this paradox in the future.