Thursday, April 14, 2011

Supreme Court to Hear Important Religious-Freedom Case

The Supreme Court has consented to hear a case that Notre Dame law professor Rick Garnett calls “the most important religious-freedom case in 20 years.”

According to case records, Cheryl Perich, a teacher at a Lutheran Church school in Michigan, took medical leave in 2004. When she sought to return to work, she was informed that a substitute teacher had been hired and would complete the academic year. In the acrimony that ensued, the church fired Perich for insubordination and “regrettable” behavior. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission argued she was wrongly terminated.

The courts have generally held that religious organizations must be free from government interference when hiring and firing “ministerial employees” such as pastors, ministers, and teachers. A lower court held that Perich was not a “ministerial employee” since she mostly taught subjects like math and social studies. But Perich taught religion classes four times weekly, shared daily prayers and devotionals with students, and periodically led chapel services.

The case raises troubling questions. If the state can determine which employees are “ministerial,” then will it intrude further into church employment decisions? Is the measure of a “ministerial” position the proportion of time spent in overtly religious activities? And doesn’t the church have a legitimate interest, even if the teacher only spends a small amount of time discussing religious matters, in making certain that the teacher and teaching represent the faith of the church?

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