U.S. Supreme Court Hears Teacher's Ministerial Exception Arguments

WASHINGTON, D.C. - (Mealey's) The government has no right to interfere with a religious school's employment decisions when it comes to a teacher who taught religious class, led worship and led prayer, the attorney for Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School argued Oct. 5 before the U.S. Supreme Court (Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, et al., No. 10-553, U.S. Sup.).

Teacher Cheryl Perich is "a commissioned minister in the church.  She holds ecclesiastical office.  She teaches the religion class," Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville, Va., argued on behalf of Hosanna-Tabor.   

But Assistant to the Solicitor General Leondra R. Kruger in Washington, arguing on behalf of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, countered that the ministerial exception may not be applied to Perich.  "The government's general interest in eradicating discrimination in the workplace is simply not sufficient to justify changing the way that the Catholic Church chooses its priests, based on gender roles that are rooted in religious doctrine.  But the interests in this case are quite different.  The government has a compelling and indeed overriding interest in ensuring that individuals are not prevented from coming to the government with information about illegal conduct," she argued. 

Walter Dellinger of Washington appeared before the court representing Perich. 

Perich was hired by Hosanna-Tabor as a contract kindergarten teacher in July 1999.  Her contract was from Aug. 15, 1999, until June 15, 2000.  After Perich completed a required colloquy class at Concordia College in February 2000, she was hired as a called teacher in late March 2000.  Called teachers are hired on an open-ended basis and cannot be dismissed without cause. 

She taught math, language arts, social studies, science, gym, art and music.  She also taught a religion class four days per week for 30 minutes and attended a chapel service with her class once a week for 30 minutes.  Approximately twice a year, she led the chapel service in rotation with other teachers.  Perich also led each class in prayer three times a day for a total of approximately five or six minutes. 

She took ill in June 2004 and took disability leave, with the promise that she would still have a job when she returned. After a number of months of leave, the congregational "shareholders" voted to request that Perich accept a peaceful release agreement stipulating that she would resign her call in exchange for the congregation paying a portion of her health insurance premiums through December 2005.  Perich refused to resign and returned to work.  She was forcibly terminated in April 2005 and filed a discrimination and retaliation charge with the EEOC the following month.  EEOC and Perich each sued Hosanna-Tabor.  The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted Hosanna-Tabor's summary judgment motion.  When the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals vacated that ruling, Hosanna-Tabor petitioned the U.S. high court.  

[Editor's Note:  Full coverage will be in the October issue of Mealey's Litigation Report: Employment Law.  In the meantime, the oral arguments transcript is available at www.mealeysonline.com or by calling the Customer Support Department at 1-800-833-9844.  Document #73-111014-013T.  For all of your legal news needs, please visit www.lexisnexis.com/mealeys.] 

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