In a January 11, 2012 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held that under the “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws, grounded in the First Amendment, a “called” teacher fired by a Lutheran school could not challenge her termination as a violation of the American With Disabilities Act (“the ADA”).

The Plaintiff, Cheryl Perich, was employed as a teacher at a school run by Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Under the Synod’s rules, there are two types of teachers: “called” teachers and “lay” teachers. Although both types of teachers perform basically the same duties, called teachers must complete a course of theoretical study at a Lutheran college, pass an oral examination by a faculty committee, and be accepted by the church’s congregation as a called teacher. The teacher then receives the formal title “Minister of Religion, Commissioned.” Lay teachers are only hired by schools in the Synod when called teachers are not available.

Perich became a called teacher, and was employed by Hosanna-Tabor for a number of years. She then was diagnosed with narcolepsy, and took a medical leave of absence. When her physician cleared her to return to work, however, her employer advised her that a lay teacher had already been hired to finish out the year, and that she could not return at this time. The congregation of the church voted to offer her a “peaceful release” from her call, which included paying a portion of her health insurance premiums in return for her resignation. Perich refused to resign. She hired an attorney and demanded that she be reinstated in her position. Hosanna-Tabor responded by telling her she would likely be fired if she wouldn’t resign. She said she intended to “assert her legal rights,” and was terminated immediately thereafter.

The EEOC filed a lawsuit on behalf of Perich claiming that she had been wrongly terminated in violation of the ADA based on her disability, and in retaliation for exercising her rights under the ADA. Hosanna-Tabor argued that under the First Amendment the courts could not interfere with the employment relationship between a religious institution and one of its ministers.

The First Amendment provides, in relevant part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” According to Hosanna-Tabor, Perich had been fired for a religious reason – namely, her threat to sue the church, which was inconsistent with the Synod’s belief that disputes between Christians should be resolved internally.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court did not focus on whether the decision to terminate Perich was based on the purported violation of the Synod’s alleged religious tenet of resolving disputes internally, or whether she was terminated due to her disability. Rather, the Court held that analysis irrelevant, because “[r]equring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By employing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause [of the First Amendment], which protects a religious group’s right to shape it’s own faith and mission through it’s appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment], which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.”

The Supreme Court concluded: The case before us is an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church’s decision to fire her. Today we hold only that the ministe­rial exception bars such a suit.” In reaching it’s decision, the Court rejected arguments that term “minister” should be more narrowly defined to include only the head of a religious organization.

The interesting thing about this case is that it did not involve a direct conflict between discrimination law and church doctrine. It was not, for example, a challenge to the right of the Catholic church or an Orthodox Jewish seminary to ordain only men as priests and rabbis, respectively. Nor did it involve the right of a religious school to hire only individuals of the same faith. Rather, the factual circumstances in this case centered on whether a disabled employee could be refused reinstatement and ultimately fired under circumstances which, in the secular world, would constitute a violation of the ADA.

Indeed, the EEOC argued in this case that such a decision would open to door to widespread employment discrimination, including possible violations of everything from Whistleblower statutes protecting those who expose illegal activity, to child labor laws.

The Court dismissed those arguments as unduly alarmist, noting “[w]e express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tor­tious conduct by their religious employers. There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances if and when they arise.”