By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday for the first time in an important church-state separation issue that ministers cannot sue their churches claiming they had been fired in violation of employment discrimination laws.
The justices unanimously overturned a U.S. appeals court ruling that the job of a former teacher and minister at a church school was secular rather than religious and she could pursue her claim that she was improperly fired in violation of federal law.
The case pitted the competing interests of the government enforcing laws such as those prohibiting discrimination and retaliation and of the constitutional protections of religious freedom.
The justices for the first time adopted a rule used for decades by some U.S. appeals courts that the government generally cannot delve into church affairs and religious beliefs in employment cases involving ministers or other clergy members.
The high court accepted what is known as a "ministerial exception" to the employment discrimination laws. It generally bars the federal government from examining employment decisions by religious groups for employees with religious duties, such as ministers.
The case involved the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Michigan, and former teacher Cheryl Perich, who was also a minister. She taught secular and religious classes.
FIRED FORMER TEACHER WAS A MINISTER
She sought to return to work after taking time off for an illness diagnosed as narcolepsy, a sleep disorder. The school refused and fired her after she threatened to sue to get her job back.
Perich then went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency which sued the church for unlawful discrimination and retaliation under the federal disabilities act.
The school argued the government cannot get involved in the hiring or firing someone who holds office in the church or does important religious functions such as teaching the faith.
Perich argued that the appeals court correctly decided that she performed important secular functions in addition to her religious duties and that the lawsuit can proceed.
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled against her.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion that the First Amendment of the Constitution barred such lawsuits, that Perich was a minister and her employment discrimination lawsuit must be dismissed.
He said delving into a church's employment decisions involving a minister would improperly interfere with its internal affairs and infringe on a religious group's constitutional right to shape its own faith and mission.
Roberts said Perich's job duties reflected a role in conveying the church's message and carrying out its religious mission.
"The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important," he wrote.
"But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission," he said.
Roberts concluded the opinion by saying it only held that a minister cannot pursue an employment discrimination suit against a church and that the court expressed no view on other types of lawsuits.
The Supreme Court case is Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, No. 10-553.
(Editing by Eric Beech)