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Thursday, September 21, 2023


Supreme Court should side with religious school that fired sick teacher

While religious freedoms are typically viewed as a subset of civil liberties, there are certain allowances made for the former that occasionally foster a divisive relationship between the two.

It often falls upon the Supreme Court to resolve these legal disagreements, and a case they are facing this judicial session once again positions the sacred against the secular.

The issue in Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the extent religious organizations must adhere to laws that prohibit discrimination in employment.

Ultimately, the Court’s decision has the potential to refine the definitions of the terms “minister” and “church function.”

On its surface, the case of Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is a simple employee discrimination lawsuit.

Cheryl Perich was an elementary teacher at a Michigan school run by the Lutheran affiliated Hosanna-Tabor Church. In 2004, she was diagnosed with the debilitating sleep disorder narcolepsy and required several months of treatment before she was able to attempt to work again.

In that time, the school understandably filled her position with a substitute, and due to questions surrounding her ability to meet the demands of the classroom setting, strongly suggested to Perich that she not return.

Predictably, Perich threatened to sue the school for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The school unequivocally retaliated against Perich’s threat by firing her. The school argued that because Perich was employed by a private school affiliated with a religious organization, her job was in fact ministerial, and inherently religious in nature. As such, the mere suggestion that Perich violated some aspect of the Lutheran Church’s bylaws was sufficient grounds to dismiss her, and the action was not subject to the anti-discriminatory laws that govern secular employees.

At this point the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stepped in and filed a formal suit against the school. The proceedings eventually found their way to the Supreme Court. The primary question the court faces in this case is, does merely working for a religious affiliated organization automatically qualify the employee as a ministerial worker even if the job itself is not overtly religious?

Arguably, aspects of a religion’s belief system carry over to any of its affiliates, and all employees work in agreement with and advocate for these ideas. Given the source, religious principles can be both arbitrary and intolerant of others, so employees can be fired at the will of the organization.

The school’s actions against Perich were morally objectionable, but they were entitled to do so under existing federal law. The Constitution’s guarantee to protect religious practices from government intrusion tacitly grants religious organizations the right to freely discriminate against others who share differing beliefs. Such provisions are necessary because all religions are inherently exclusionary.

For each particular faith the world is divided into believers and non-believers, and were the government to forcibly prohibit such segregation, it would violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. In addition, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly omits religious organizations from having to abide by Equal Employment Opportunity mandates.

Obviously, religious organizations are not immune to all forms of governmental oversight. Past legal cases have established that the government can rightfully intervene in religious affairs when it has a compelling interest, specifically when an organization violates a criminal law. No religious group has sanction to threaten the use of physical force or engage in organized criminal activity such as drug trafficking.

On the other hand, civil matters should be handled internally by religious groups, and if they feel the need to exclude some groups for whatever reason, or for no reason at all, it is within their rights to do so. This calls to mind an adage: What is right is not always legal, and what is legal is not always right.

The Supreme Court should rule in favor of the Lutheran school out of respect to federal laws. However, it should also emphasize that the importance of its decision lies not with what it allows but with what it reveals.

That is, some religious organizations have no reservations in testing the boundaries of the First Amendment and would rather dally around with legal definitions and loopholes than conduct themselves in accordance with a higher moral code.

Marc Anderson is a 3rd-year cell biology Ph.D. student and may be reached at [email protected].

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