Legal

High Court to Decide if Religious School Allowed ADA Ministerial Exception

By Staff Report

Mar. 30, 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether a religious school can claim a “ministerial exception” to a discrimination charge under the Americans with Disabilities Act laws for a teacher who taught primarily secular subjects.


The case the court accepted March 28 in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Cheryl Perich v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School involves Perich, who was a “called” teacher at the Redford, Michigan-based school.


Qualifying as a called teacher requires a certificate of admission into the teaching ministry. A called teacher receives the title of “commissioned minister,” but religion consumed only 45 minutes of Perich’s seven-hour school day, according to court papers.


Perich was terminated in 2005 from her position after the school refused to reinstate her after a disability leave, although a doctor said she could return to work with no restrictions. She then filed a lawsuit, claiming discrimination and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.


A lower court agreed with the school that it was entitled to a “ministerial exception” to the ADA and dismissed the case.


However, in its unanimous opinion last year, a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati disagreed. The “legislative history makes clear that Congress intended the ADA to broadly protect employees of religious entities from retaliation on the job, subject only to narrowly drawn religious exemption,” the appeals court ruled.


“The fact that Perich participated in and led some religious activities throughout the day does not make her primary function religious,” the appeals court said. “This is underscored by the fact that teachers were not required to be called or even Lutheran to conduct these religious activities, and at least one teacher at Hosanna-Tabor was not Lutheran.”


The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether a religious school can claim a “ministerial exception” to a discrimination charge under the Americans with Disabilities Act laws for a teacher who taught primarily secular subjects.


The case the court accepted March 28 in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Cheryl Perich v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School involves Perich, who was a “called” teacher at the Redford, Michigan-based school.


Qualifying as a called teacher requires a certificate of admission into the teaching ministry. A called teacher receives the title of “commissioned minister,” but religion consumed only 45 minutes of Perich’s seven-hour school day, according to court papers.


Perich was terminated in 2005 from her position after the school refused to reinstate her after a disability leave, although a doctor said she could return to work with no restrictions. She then filed a lawsuit, claiming discrimination and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.


A lower court agreed with the school that it was entitled to a “ministerial exception” to the ADA and dismissed the case.


However, in its unanimous opinion last year, a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati disagreed. The “legislative history makes clear that Congress intended the ADA to broadly protect employees of religious entities from retaliation on the job, subject only to narrowly drawn religious exemption,” the appeals court ruled.


“The fact that Perich participated in and led some religious activities throughout the day does not make her primary function religious,” the appeals court said. “This is underscored by the fact that teachers were not required to be called or even Lutheran to conduct these religious activities, and at least one teacher at Hosanna-Tabor was not Lutheran.” 


Filed by Judy Greenwald of Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.


 


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