By Daniel Mach, Director, ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
Do religious institutions get a categorical free pass to discriminate against certain employees, regardless of the reason? That issue lies at the heart of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed yesterday by the ACLU, the ACLU of Michigan, and a coalition of religious liberty organizations, we argue that the answer must be a resounding "no."
The case involves a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) filed by the EEOC and Cheryl Perich, a school teacher of primarily nonreligious subjects like social studies, math, and science, against Hosanna-Tabor, a church-run Lutheran grade school. Perich and the EEOC claim that the school summarily fired Perich after she took a leave of absence to treat her narcolepsy and in retaliation for asserting her ADA right to be free from such discrimination.
In response, Hosanna-Tabor has argued that, under a "ministerial exception" to civil rights laws like the ADA and Title VII, the federal courts are constitutionally barred from even considering Perich's claims. As interpreted by the lower courts, the ministerial exception generally grants a religious organization immunity from employment discrimination suits brought by "ministerial" employees -- that is, those employees primarily engaged in leading the faith and advancing its religious mission. (Until now, the Supreme Court has never squarely addressed this issue.) The court of appeals in the Hosanna-Tabor case, however, refused to apply the exemption to Perich's claims, and we agree that the case should go forward.