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Supreme Court Weighs Government
Role in Church Hiring
BY JENNIFER HATCHER ©2011 Baptist Press
he U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments October 5 , in a case that could have a serious impact on what the definition of a minister is and who has defining rights.
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, Michigan. 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.
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