Terry Jeffrey

The congregation then voted to ask Perich for a "peaceful release from her call."

"'Peaceful release' is a religious act by which a congregation and a called minister agree to release one another from the mutual obligations of the call," says the brief submitted by the church. "Peaceful releases are common, and they leave the called minister in good standing and eligible for a new call."

Perich declined to be peacefully released. In late February, she showed up at the school and met with Principal Hoeft.

"Later that day, Perich told Hoeft that if she were not reinstated, she would sue the church," said the church's brief. "Hoeft immediately asked Perich if that were what she really meant, because a lawsuit would clearly violate the church's conflict resolution policy applicable to called employees. Perich repeated the threat."

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod explained this teaching in its own brief: "St. Paul teaches in his first letter to the Corinthians that Christians should generally resolve their disputes internally without going to the secular courts for relief." For this reason, the church has developed procedures for settling internal disputes.

A few weeks after the meeting between Perich and Hoeft, the Hosanna-Tabor congregation voted to "rescind Perich's call" because she had threatened to sue the church contrary to the church's teaching.

"The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a complaint against the church under the Americans With Disabilities Act, alleging a single count of retaliation," says the church's brief. "Perich intervened, alleging the same retaliation claim and adding a retaliation claim under state law. Neither complaint alleges disability discrimination. Both complaints request an order reinstating Perich to her former position as a commissioned minister, together with back pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and injunctive relief ordering new 'policies, practices, and programs' at the church."

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod told the court in its brief that its views on the ministry and the settlement of disputes may not be "widely shared" or "widely understood." "But," the church said, "they have been the views of orthodox Lutherans for centuries."

Acting Deputy Solicitor General Leondra Kruger told the court, during oral arguments, that the federal government should be able to trump the church on these decisions.

"Their submission is that the hiring and firing decisions with respect to parochial school teachers and with respect to priests is categorically off limits," said Kruger. "And we think that that is a rule that is insufficiently attentive to the relative public and private interests at stake, interests that this court has repeatedly recognized are important in determining freedom of association claims."

Kruger contended this did not mean the government could order the Catholic Church to ordain female priests. But, even then, according to her argument, it would be a matter of the government weighing "the relative public and private interests at stake."

What is at stake is the First Amendment and the religious freedom of all Americans.

Terry Jeffrey

Terence P. Jeffrey is the editor-in-chief of CNSNews

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