“The church must be free to choose who will guide it on its way.”
— Chief Justice John Roberts
“When it comes to the expression and inculcation of religious doctrine, there can be no doubt that the messenger matters.”
— Justice Samuel Alito
Church schools can be found in nearly every community in America and Redford, Mich., is no exception. Along with the many public schools in the charter township of 48,000 people, the Catholic church runs two schools and the Lutheran church operates a school through the Hosanna-Tabor church.
Teachers at the Hosanna-Tabor school are separated into two categories. Some of the teachers have an educational background, but no religious training (and need not even be Lutherans). These teachers, however, are hired only when the school is unable to fill positions with teachers who have both educational training and religious training through the Lutheran church. This arrangement is legal and perfectly understandable, as the church seeks to serve multiple purposes in the training and hiring of its teachers.
Those who have dual training are considered ‘called’ teachers. They may teach religion classes, lead their students in daily prayer and participate in or lead chapel services at the school. They are given the title, “Minister of Religion, commissioned.” Other than those duties, the lay and called teachers at the school serve similar functions.
Approximately six years ago one of the school’s called teachers, Cheryl Perich, developed a physical health condition — narcolepsy. When the school year started she was unable to work and the school hired a teacher to take her place while she was disabled. After Christmas she informed the principal of the school that she was ready to come back. The school, however, had signed a full-year contract with her replacement and told her that she was not ready to return. She came back to the school anyway and insisted that the principal document that she had been there and had attempted to return to work. The church congregation then rescinded her call and she was terminated from her position at the school.
If Ms. Perich had worked for a public school she would have been able to pursue a legal claim that she had been terminated without cause, refused reinstatement under various federal provisions that protect disabled workers and made a claim for back pay, legal expenses and future lost compensation. This week, the Supreme Court of the United States was faced with the question of whether her status as a “minister” barred her from making these claims.
This was a busy week for the Court. To this point in the term it had issued only six decisions (decisions usually come late in the term) and nearly all of them had been unanimous. There is a widespread perception that the High Court’s decisions are all contentious 5–4 rulings that split along ideological lines but those cases are by far the exception rather than the rule. When those deeply divided decisions come along, however, they often arise on hot-button social issues like abortion, gun rights and religion. It would not have been surprising, then, if this case was decided by a narrow majority of the Court.
Instead, the court issued a unanimous decision in this matter. Even where there was a separate concurring opinion, by Justice Alito who is one of the Court’s most conservative members, it was joined by Justice Kagan who is one of the Court’s most liberal members.
The Court concluded that there has long been a ‘ministerial exception’ to federal laws. Since Perich was more than just a lay teacher, but had religious training, had the title of “minister of religion, commissioned” and educated church members (her students) in religious matters, she clearly qualified as a minister. Chief Justice John Roberts cited a letter from then Secretary of State James Madison to Catholic Bishop John Carroll declining an 1806 invitation to President Jefferson to have a say in who should run the church’s affairs in America to show the long-standing nature of American policy on the subject. He concluded, “the purpose of the exception is not to safeguard a church’s decision to fire a minister only when it is made for a religious reason. The exception instead ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful — a matter strictly ecclesiastical — is the church’s alone.”
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former assistant prosecuting attorney.