Monday, January 16, 2012

Supreme Court: Freedom of religion requires an exception to prohibition against employment discrimination

The Supreme Court weighed in this month on the conflict between the right to freedom of religion, and the corresponding right against government interference with such freedom, versus the right to freedom from employment discrimination.  The Court came down squarely on the side of religion.   In Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment's right to freedom of religion implicitly includes  a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws.  The Court explained that "churches and other religious groups must be free to choose and dismiss their leaders without government interference." 

The case was brought by Cheryl Perich, who was a former teacher in Redford, Michigan at a private school operated by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Ms. Perich was fired shortly after filing an employment discrimination claim based on a disability, narcolepsy. The school asserted she was fired for violating the religious rules of the Church by filing litigation rather than trying to resolve her dispute within the church. This would have constituted unlawful retaliation absent the religious freedom question, and the school did not contend otherwise. 

The Court ruled against Ms. Perich, ruling that "the Free Exercise Clause prevents [the government] from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own." An important fact in this case was that Mr. Perich was considered a "called" teacher as opposed to a "lay" teacher, meaning that her position was considered affiliated with the religious element of the school rather than only the secular element.  

The ruling should not be very surprising, considering that most courts had recognized a ministerial exception to employment discrimination. Moreover, the Court's ruling was unanimous, signaling that the constitutional interpretation underlying the decision is accepted generally by all nine justices. 

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