There’s nothing quite like a First Amendment dispute to illuminate the subtleties of interpreting separation of church and state.
By Elissa Lerner
Last week, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time to uphold a forty year-old practice known as the “ministerial exception” in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In Hosanna-Tabor, Cheryl Perich, a teacher who mostly taught secular subjects but also religion and occasionally led prayers, was fired after taking a leave of absence to receive treatment for narcolepsy. She threatened to sue the school for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A federal appeals court concluded that since her primary duties were secular in nature, she was therefore not a minister and could sue under ADA. However, the Supreme Court, in its first ministerial exception case, unanimously decided to overturn the decision, ruling that the question of who is a minister could not be “resolved by a stopwatch.” For the government to interfere with a church’s firing process “intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts. “Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.” Continue Reading →