A dispute that pits the principle of church autonomy against an unfair firing claim is headed for the U.S. Supreme Court.
At issue is whether an elementary school operated by a Missouri Synod Lutheran church in Michigan was justified in dismissing a teacher attempting to return to work after a disability leave related to narcolepsy. She filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Though a decision may be an entire year away, churches are keeping a close eye on the case. The turning point is whether the teacher can be considered a ministerial employee, since she led prayer, devotions, and religion studies. If so, the church, Hosanna-Tabor, would be free to dismiss the teacher under the "ministerial exception" of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Rick Garnett, associate dean of the University of Notre Dame Law School, considers this the most significant religious freedom case in 20 years. He says a ruling against the school would narrow the existing exception too far, allowing courts to interfere with religious employment decisions. One in the school's favor would affirm the religious freedoms granted to institutions.
Garnett expects the court to affirm the existing exception. "What's harder to predict is the scope of that exception, or the test or standard the court will propose to lower courts," he said.
However, the legal counsel for the Assemblies of God sees Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC as having less significance. Richard Hammar said the challenge will be to clarify how the law applies to non-pastoral employees who perform religious functions.
"It could be of major significance if the court limits the ministerial exception [to] ordained pastors performing pastoral duties, but I do not foresee this happening," he said.
Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, said the implications extend to free speech concerns.
"There are big freedom issues which we have to be careful not to undermine because of sympathy or lack of sympathy for a particular person involved in a particular case," he said, acknowledging the teacher may ultimately win in the court of public opinion. "This is one of the challenges we face, particularly when many people in society will find it easy to sympathize with the employee."
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SCOTUSBlog has more background on Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC.
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