The case was brought before the Supreme Court to decide if a teacher "called" to serve at a Lutheran school in Michigan should have been considered a minister at the time she was fired. The deeper issue in the case, however, is whether the federal government should have the authority to interfere and decide for faith-based institutions what defines a minister and who can be hired and fired.
Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church considered Cheryl Perich a minister when it commissioned her to teach at its school in Redford, Mich. When she became ill, she took a medical leave of absence for diagnosed narcolepsy that was extended for more than six months.
When Perich returned to the school after her doctor cleared her for work, the school had already hired a replacement teacher and had no available positions. Perich threatened to sue the school for discrimination and was fired for going against the church's teachings that forbid going to outside help to settle disputes.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati overturned a federal judge's decision in a suit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and determined Perich's responsibilities did not constitute those of a minister.
The debate before the Supreme Court focused on what is known as the "ministerial exception," a long-standing principle in the federal courts that prohibits the government from using job discrimination laws against churches and other religious bodies in their hiring and firing of ministers.
A person who teaches doctrines of faith as part of the job description is considered a minister, said Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor who argued on behalf of the church.
The Department of Justice surprised even some advocates of strict separation of church and state in contending the "ministerial exception" should be totally rejected.
Some of the justices expressed sympathy for the argument of Hosanna-Tabor and religious liberty advocates that the government should not infringe on church decisions regarding its leadership.
"It's none of the business of the government to decide what the substantial interest of the church is," Associate Justice Antonin Scalia said.
"There, in black and white in the text of the Constitution, are special protections for religion," Scalia continued.
Despite the First Amendment protections for religious institutions against government interference, lawyers representing the EEOC's position did not agree that churches and faith-based schools should be treated differently than secular institutions with employees.
Walter Dellinger, who argued for the EEOC stance, told the court the primary reason the Sixth Circuit Court was correct in ruling Perich was not a minister "is she carries out such important secular functions in addition to her religious duties."
Chief Justice John Roberts interrupted, telling Dellinger, "hat can't be the test. The Pope is a head of state carrying out secular functions, right? Those are important. So he is not a minister?"
Assistant U.S. Solicitor General Leondra Kruger, representing the EEOC, seemed to try to do her best to get the court to view the case without the religion aspects attached to it.
Responding to Kruger, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer said that "since this is tough and I'm stuck on this, I don't see how you can avoid going into religion to some degree."
The case is Hosanna-Tabor Church v. EEOC. A decision is expected to be issued during the high court's 2011-12 term, which closes next summer.
A diverse group of organizations filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of the church. The Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board and Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission signed onto a brief in support of a strong "ministerial exception."
Jennifer Hatcher is an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.
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