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?
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.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
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.
Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School (“Hosanna-Tabor”) is a religious school in Redford, Michigan that teaches kindergarten through eighth grade. Hosanna-Tabor employs two types of teachers: “lay” teachers and “called” teachers. Called teachers are commissioned ministers selected by the congregation after completing “colloquy” classes focusing on the tenets of the Christian faith. Cheryl Perich (“Perich”) joined the Hosanna-Tabor faculty in July 1999 as a lay teacher and was “called” in March 2000. Perich taught a range of secular subjects, including math, language arts, and music. After her call, Perich kept the same duties she had as a lay teacher. 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.
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. In December 2004, Perich was diagnosed with narcolepsy. She told Hosanna-Tabor that she would return to teach in two to three months, after she was stabilized on medication. 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. 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. Perich met with the school board and presented a doctor’s work release note, but the board continued to request that Perich resign.
Perich continued to refuse the request to resign; she appeared at the school on February 22 to resume her job. 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. 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.
Hosanna-Tabor terminated Perich’s employment on April 10, 2005. 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”). The EEOC filed suit against Hosanna-Tabor on September 28, 2007. Perich moved to intervene, raising the federal retaliation claim together with an added state retaliation claim.
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. 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. 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.
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.