Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (10-553)

Oral argument: Oct. 5, 2011

Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (Mar. 9, 2010)

Respondent Cheryl Perich taught for five years at Petitioner, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School (“Hosanna-Tabor”), including four years as a commissioned minister. In 2004, Hosanna-Tabor hired a new teacher to fill Perich’s position after Perich missed several months of teaching due to narcolepsy. When Hosanna-Tabor did not permit Perich to return to her former position, Perich threatened to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Hosanna-Tabor fired Perich, and Perich initiated legal proceedings with the Respondent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), alleging that Hosanna-Tabor fired her in retaliation for threatening to sue. Hosanna-Tabor argues that the ministerial exception to the ADA, which prevents employment suits against religious entities by their religious employees, bars Perich's lawsuit because she fulfilled an important religious role. Perich and the EEOC contend that there is no ministerial exception under the anti-retaliation provisions of the ADA, and that the Establishment Clause, freedom of association principles, and Free Exercise Clause do not bar her suit. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit determined that Perich did not fall under the ministerial exception because she taught secular subjects with minimal religious components. The Supreme Court will decide whether the ministerial exception applies to a teacher at a religious school who teaches both secular and religious material.

Question presented

Whether the ministerial exception applies to a teacher at a religious elementary school who teaches the full secular curriculum, but also teaches daily religion classes, is a commissioned minister, and regularly leads students in prayer and worship.

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Issue

Does a court violate the First Amendment when it considers issues pertaining to teacher employment in a religious organization where the teacher serves both secular and religious functions?

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Facts

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School (“Hosanna-Tabor”) is a religious school in Redford, Michigan that teaches kindergarten through eighth grade. See EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, 597 F.3d 769, 772 (6th Cir. 2010). Hosanna-Tabor employs two types of teachers: “lay” teachers and “called” teachers. See id. Called teachers are commissioned ministers selected by the congregation after completing “colloquy” classes focusing on the tenets of the Christian faith. See id. Cheryl Perich (“Perich”) joined the Hosanna-Tabor faculty in July 1999 as a lay teacher and was “called” in March 2000. See id. Perich taught a range of secular subjects, including math, language arts, and music. See id. After her call, Perich kept the same duties she had as a lay teacher. See id. at 772–773. Beyond her secular teachings, Perich also taught religion classes four days a week, attended chapel services with her students, and led her class in prayer three times a day. See id. at 772.

In the summer of 2004, Perich fell ill, and the school encouraged her to go on a leave of absence for the 2004–2005 school year. See EEOC, 597 F.3d at 773. In December 2004, Perich was diagnosed with narcolepsy. See id. She told Hosanna-Tabor that she would return to teach in two to three months, after she was stabilized on medication. See id. In January 2005, Hosanna-Tabor’s principal, Stacy Hoeft (“Hoeft”), informed Perich that she had hired a substitute teacher in Perich’s absence; Perich quickly told Hoeft that she would return to work within a month. See id. at 773–774. Hoeft feared that Perich’s health would place the students at risk, and the congregation of Hosanna-Tabor voted for a “peaceful release agreement,” asking Perich to resign her call. See id. Perich met with the school board and presented a doctor’s work release note, but the board continued to request that Perich resign. See id. at 774.

Perich continued to refuse the request to resign; she appeared at the school on February 22 to resume her job. See EEOC, 597 F.3d at 774. The school had no job opening for Perich, but Perich would not leave school grounds until she received a letter acknowledging that she had come to work in order to prevent voluntary termination under Hosanna-Tabor policy. See id. On March 19, the Board of Education sent Perich a letter stating its intent to rescind her call based on her disruptive behavior, if she would not accept a peaceful release. See id.

Hosanna-Tabor terminated Perich’s employment on April 10, 2005. See EEOC, 597 F.3d at 775. On May 17, 2005, Perich filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), alleging discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). See id. The EEOC filed suit against Hosanna-Tabor on September 28, 2007. See id. Perich moved to intervene, raising the federal retaliation claim together with an added state retaliation claim. See id.

Perich and Hosanna-Tabor each filed motions for summary judgment on July 15, 2008; the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted summary judgment in favor of Hosanna-Tabor, finding that Perich’s claim fell under the “ministerial exception” to the ADA. See EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, 582 F. Supp. 2d 881, 892 (E.D. Mich. 2008). The U.S Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned the district court’s ruling, finding that Perich did not fall under the ministerial exception. See EEOC, 597 F.3d at 782. Hosanna-Tabor appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari on March 28, 2011 to consider whether the ministerial exception applies to a teacher who teaches a secular curriculum as a commissioned minister. See Question presented.

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Discussion

The ministerial exception to the ADA is intended to maintain First Amendment separation between church and state, and to enable courts to refrain from exploring religious doctrine. See EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, 597 F.3d 769, 777–782 (6th Cir. 2010). Petitioner Hosanna-Tabor argues that Perich’s suit should be barred under the ministerial exception because she was a commissioned minister of the Lutheran church, and because any finding for Perich would involve courts in making religious decisions for a church. See Brief for Petitioner at 57. Respondents EEOC and Perich maintain that this is a simple case of discrimination, and that failing to rule in Perich’s favor would enable churches to discriminate and retaliate against employees who seek to assert their civil rights. See Brief for the Federal Respondent at 15–17; see also Brief for Respondent Cheryl Perich at 23–24.

Michigan and supporting states argue that a victory for Perich will lead courts to become too involved in religious questions. See Brief of Amici Curiae Michigan and Seven Other States in Support of Petitioner at 4–6. Michigan points out that, because Perich’s work was “intimately intertwined with religious doctrine,” the court could not resolve the controversy without exploring religious doctrine; for this reason, the court should refrain from deciding the case. See id. Additionally, Hosanna-Tabor fears that a ruling for the Respondents would imply that courts have the ability to override decisions of churches, and to interfere with the freedom of churches to select their own clergy. See Brief for Petitioner at 51. Hosanna-Tabor argues that this would enable courts to dictate to churches who should teach their religious messages. See id. at 36.

The EEOC claims that, at its heart, this is a civil rights case, not one involving religious issues, and that there is no reason to fear excessive infringement on the separation of church and state. See Brief for the Federal Respondent at 19–20. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other groups (“NAACP”) suggest that a blanket application of a ministerial exception to teachers in this case could prohibit the application of many civil rights statutes beyond the ADA. See Brief of NAACP Legal Defense Fund, et al. in Support of Respondent at 23–24. The NAACP asserts that a conflict with a church’s religious doctrine should not enable a religious employer to “opt out” of the secular legal system. See id. at 22.

Hosanna-Tabor asserts that, in addition to bringing courts into church matters, limiting the ministerial exception would force the Lutheran Church to violate its religious conflict resolution process, and to resolve more disputes in court. See Brief for Petitioner at 54–55. The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (“Missouri Synod”) notes that the Lutheran Church encourages potential litigants to resolve their claims within the Church (out of court), and argues that a Supreme Court ruling in Perich’s favor would open the doors to a blending of church and state, with an increased number of church controversies in American courts. See Brief Amicus Curiae the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (“Missouri Synod”) in Support of Petitioner at 18–19, 25. The Missouri Synod believes this blend would be a problem because it claims the courts do not understand the Synod’s religious views on the treatment of disputes, and would make decisions on Church issues that are out of line with Lutheran values. See Brief of the Missouri Synod in Support of Petitioner at 25.

Perich states that extending a ministerial exception to teachers would give a religious employer “constitutional entitlement to become a law unto itself,” disregarding the employment laws that apply to all other employers. See Brief for Respondent Cheryl Perich at 20. The Americans United for Separation of Church and State (“Americans United ”) and the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) agree that a ministerial exception allows religious organizations to convey religious messages without governmental interference, but worry that the application of the exception works against the protection of employees through antidiscrimination laws. See Brief for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, et al. in Support of Respondents at 5. Specifically, Americans United and the ACLU argue that courts have applied, and could continue to apply, the ministerial exception in cases where there is no proof of religious justification, potentially leading to discriminatory terminations with no theological basis. See id. at 14–15.

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Analysis

At issue in this case is the “ministerial exception,” based on the First Amendment, which prevents most employment-law litigation between religious organizations and employees who perform religious functions. See Question Presented. Petitioner Hosanna-Tabor argues that the ministerial exception should extend to Cheryl Perich because she served an important religious role. See Brief for Petitioner at 37. Respondents Perich and the EEOC argue that this lawsuit is not barred because the ADA's anti-retaliation provision does not contain a ministerial exception. See Brief for Federal Respondent at 19–20; Brief for Respondent Cheryl Perich at 26. Moreover, they argue that application of the ADA’s anti-retaliation provision in this case does not violate the First Amendment. See Brief for Respondent Cheryl Perich at 22; see also Brief for Federal Respondent at 19.

The Free Exercise Clause

Hosanna-Tabor contends that the Free Exercise Clause safeguards religious organizations’ right to choose who performs important religious functions. See Brief for Petitioner at 19. Hosanna-Tabor argues that the ministerial exception is crucial to the free exercise of religion, and that it applies to employees who perform important religious functions. See id. at 20–21. In addition, Hosanna-Tabor maintains that the ministerial exception extends beyond bishops and pastors to professors, teachers, and music directors. See id. Hosanna-Tabor argues that the ministerial exception applies to all who are appointed by a church to impart religious doctrines and values to others. See id. at 22. Hosanna-Tabor claims that, because Perich taught religion to her students and led devotional exercises and prayer, she performed important religious functions central to the Church’s mission. See id. at 37. Furthermore, Hosanna-Tabor reasons that Perich’s status as a call teacher (someone who fulfills a pastoral role) is proof of her pivotal religious role in the Church. See id. at 45.

In response, Perich argues that this case doesn't involve religious issues; the question is whether she was wrongfully terminated from her teaching position after she stated her intention to sue for disability discrimination. See Brief for Respondent Cheryl Perich at 45. Perich maintains that a court does not need to evaluate religious issues to resolve this question. See id. Therefore, Perich asserts that applying the ADA to this case does not violate the Free Exercise Clause. See id. at 43. Perich also contends that Congress has not enacted a religious exemption from ADA’s anti-retaliation statute; consequently, there is no ministerial exception to the ADA. See id.

The EEOC supports Perich’s argument that this case concerns a secular issue, and asserts that the Free Exercise Clause affords no protection to religious organizations from general laws prohibiting disability discrimination and retaliation. See Brief for Federal Respondent at 22. The EEOC states that, because the ADA statute is neutral and does not discriminate against religious employers, it does not offend the First Amendment. See id.

In response to the EEOC and Perich, Hosanna-Tabor argues that the government should not resolve religious disputes nor determine religious doctrine. See Reply Brief for Petitioner at 7. Hosanna-Tabor insists that the dispute pertains to Perich’s fitness for the ministry. See id. Therefore, Hosanna-Tabor maintains that the case involves a dispute over religious authority, and that the ministerial exception is applicable. See id. Moreover, Hosanna-Tabor argues that the ministerial exception applies to retaliation claims because the evaluation of those claims requires assessment of religious performance. See id. at 24.

The Establishment Clause

Hosanna-Tabor argues that, because the Establishment Clause forbids governmental appointment of ministers and entanglement in religious questions, Perich’s suit is barred. See Brief for Petitioner at 26–29. Hosanna-Tabor further contends that, since the remedy for discrimination in Perich’s lawsuit is reinstatement or the monetary equivalent, threats are posed to the separation of church and state. See id. at 50. Hosanna-Tabor also argues that Perich’s lawsuit forces the government to evaluate the decisions made by a church—namely, Perich’s fitness to serve the religious entity—thereby entangling the government in theological disputes. See id. at 29. Moreover, Hosanna-Tabor claims that reinstatement would in effect allow the court to appoint Perich to perform religious functions. See id. at 26. Hosanna-Tabor moreover contends that giving Perich the monetary equivalent of her former employment would force the courts to invalidate Hosanna-Tabor’s decisions. See id. at 52. Accordingly, Hosanna-Tabor insists that this case threatens to enable the government to interfere with the internal affairs of churches, infringing on churches’ constitutional right to determine their religious affiliations, and violating the Establishment Clause. See Reply Brief for Petitioner at 10.

In contrast, the EEOC insists that Perich’s claims are not barred by the Establishment Clause because they neither entangle the government in religious questions nor force the government to appoint religious persons. See Brief for Federal Respondent at 33–37. The EEOC argues that Perich is not seeking reinstatement, since the school that is operated by the Church is now closed. See id. at 33. Furthermore, the EEOC argues that Perich’s lawsuit does not entangle the government in a theological dispute; the lawsuit does not require the court to decide on religious doctrine or assess the Church’s religious validity. See id. at 33. The EEOC contends that the Court can accept the Church’s religious doctrine as true, while retaining the ability to evaluate Perich’s claims for retaliation regarding her disability discrimination claims. See id. at 37.

Perich agrees with the EEOC, arguing that her case does not invariably lead to disputes regarding theological issues. See Brief for Respondent Cheryl Perich at 52. Moreover, Perich points out that entanglement between church and state must be excessive before it becomes unconstitutional. See id. Perich believes entanglement requires a greater degree of interaction between the government and a religious organization than is present in this case, and contends that applying antidiscrimination laws to employment cases is constitutional. See id.

Right of Freedom of Association

Hosanna-Tabor contends that the right to freedom of religious association gives members of the public the right to associate with one another to further a religious goal. See Brief for Petitioner at 33–35. Hosanna-Tabor argues that this right encompasses the right to choose the members within the association, and therefore prevents the government from interfering with the selection of those who are chosen to serve a religious entity’s mission. See id. Hosanna-Tabor claims that Perich’s case would, in effect, allow the Court to choose members of the Church, thereby violating the Church’s right to freedom of association. See id. at 33–36.

Perich argues that the inquiry regarding the right of freedom of association is contingent upon whether application of the law would hinder the organization’s message in a significant way, and if so, whether the burden serves compelling state interests. See Brief for Respondent Cheryl Perich at 28. Perich and the EEOC insist that, even if the right to freedom of association includes the right to operate schools, it does not free Hosanna-Tabor from general antidiscrimination laws. See id.; see Brief for Federal Respondent at 30. Moreover, Perich contends that the government has a compelling interest to protect its teachers from discrimination, and to protect teachers’ access to courts in order to enforce the interest. See Brief for Respondent Cheryl Perich at 32. The EEOC also asserts that the Church has failed to show that including Perich in their religious entity would significantly impair their religious mission. See Brief for Federal Respondent at 30. Accordingly, Perich argues that the school’s expressive-association interests are insufficient to override the government’s interest in preventing employment discrimination. See Brief for Respondent Cheryl Perich at 33.

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Conclusion

The Supreme Court will decide whether a ministerial exception applies to a teacher at a religious school who teaches secular subjects. Petitioner Hosanna-Tabor contends that the ministerial exception to the ADA protects it from a lawsuit by one of its “called” teachers. Hosanna-Tabor argues that an unfavorable ruling will infringe on the separation of church and state, and that the government should not interfere with any church’s freedom to select their own clergy. Respondents Cheryl Perich and the EEOC assert that the case presents a civil rights issue, not a religious issue, and that any ministerial exception does not negate antidiscrimination laws designed to protect employees. This case will help define the scope of the ministerial exception, and will affect the ability of religious employees to sue their religious employers under the ADA.

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Authors

Prepared by: Jenny Liu and Lisa Schmidt

Edited by: Eric Schulman

Additional Sources

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