In late March, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case concerning Cheryl Perich, a former teacher at a church-run Lutheran grade school, who argues that the church violated a federal disability discrimination law when it fired her (Perich suffers from a disability). The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the school on her behalf, asserting a retaliation claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The school where Perich was employed, the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, claims that under the “ministerial exception” Perich and the EEOC cannot sue the school for discrimination.
As interpreted by the lower courts, the ministerial exception grants religious organizations immunity from employment discrimination suits brought by “ministerial” employees, i.e., those employees principally engaged in leading the faith and advancing its religious mission and functions. (Prior to this case, the Supreme Court had not squarely addressed the ministerial exception).
The American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of religious-liberty groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, considered by many to be one of the most important religious liberty cases in years. The brief argues that although churches certainly have a constitutional right to religious autonomy, that right is not absolute, and religious organizations do not have the right to discriminate based on non-religious grounds.
Religious institutions should be given some leeway in hiring practices in order to express and practice their faith. For example, a Catholic church need not hire a female priest and an Orthodox Jewish congregation need not hire a female rabbi if doing so would violate their religious tenets. However, this ministerial exception should not apply to discriminatory decisions that have nothing to do with religious doctrine.
The ACLU filed its friend-of-the-court brief together with Americans United For Separation of Church and State, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the Sikh Council on Religion and Education.