Religious freedom meets disability rights

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This graphic is an outline of the Michigan state map with the Michigan state flag inside.The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case March 28 questioning whether disability workplace discrimination laws pertain to teachers at religious schools.

At question is the “ministerial exception” of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which excludes government involvement in certain management decisions at religious institutions.

Cheryl Perich, an elementary school teacher at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Michigan, went on disability leave for narcolepsy in 2004, forcing her to miss the first half of the 2004-05 school year. She informed the school she planned to return to teaching in December, but was told to resign because a substitute was contracted for the rest of the academic year. The school fired her in April.

Having taught at the school for more than five years, she was titled a “contract teacher,” and therefore could not be fired without cause. She appealed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed a lawsuit against the school. The case was dismissed at the district level, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled in her favor in March 2010.

“A religious [entity] may give a preference in employment to individuals of the particular religion, and may require that applicants and employees conform to the religious tenants of the organization,” the Court of Appeals stated. “However, a religious organization may not discriminate against an individual who satisfies the permitted religious criteria because that individual is disabled.”

In its decision, the Court of Appeals stated that Perich’s cases did not qualify for a “ministerial exception” because her job was predominantly secular. Despite leading a 30-minute religious class four days a week, she also taught math, language arts, social studies, science, gym, art and music. On average, 45 minutes of her seven-hour school day focused on religious instruction.

The court also said the “ministerial exception,” is meant to prevent the government from interfering with church doctrine. Though the school argued that she violated the school’s internal dispute resolution process, the court countered that the government’s role in this case is to interpret the ADA, not a religious doctrine.

The case will be argued this fall.