'Most important' religious freedom case

Published: Saturday, Sept. 24 2011 3:13 p.m. MDT

In this April 9, 2010 file photo, the Supreme Court is seen in Washington.

Associated Press

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There was a time when Cheryl Perich may have wanted to emphasize she was a minister.

But that was before her case worked its way up to the Supreme Court this March.

In 1999, Perich signed a one-year contract to teach at Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich. The next year the congregation voted to make her a "called teacher" — a commissioned minister in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. She didn't have to renew a contract every year and could now take tax breaks reserved for ministers. And, under Lutheran teachings, she would be answering a call from God.

But five years later they would vote to rescind her call and put into motion what many say is the most important religious freedom case in years.

When Perich went to a church golf outing in June 2004, she couldn't have known how much her life was going to change. She couldn't have known more than 100 organizations and religious institutions would file 30 briefs in the Supreme Court arguing about what began that day. What was supposed to be a fun activity led to events that are destined to affect almost every religious group in the nation. It will determine who can sue religious organizations for discriminatory hiring and firing practices. It will say which religious employees the law will consider ministers and those it will consider secular. It will decide when the government will step in and stop a church from "discriminating" and when it will back off and let a church make its own decisions.

Robert T. Smith at BYU's International Center for Law and Religion Studies said, depending on the Supreme Court's decision, churches could expect a rash of litigation challenging their hiring and firing for ministerial positions — potentially limiting religious autonomy in choosing who will lead congregations.

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could change everything.

But in June 2004, it was just a medical mystery. Perich fell ill during the golf outing and was rushed to a hospital.

It took until December before doctors diagnosed narcolepsy — a disease with symptoms ranging from sudden deep sleep to muscle weakness.

Perich went on paid leave at the beginning. As weeks turned to months, the school first doubled up classes with existing teachers, then, they hired a contract teacher to teach Perich's classes the rest of that school year. Perich said her doctor cleared her for work by February 2005. The school thought it would be best have her resign her call in what they call a peaceful release. The school offered to pay part of her insurance — all with an eye to giving her a new call if she was better the next school year. Perich didn't like this and threatened to take legal action for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The idea of a "commissioned minister" saying she might sue the tiny church and school was too much for the school's leaders. After hearing both sides, the Hosanna-Tabor congregation voted 40 to 11 to rescind Perich's call.

Perich filed a charge with the EEOC in May 2005. The EEOC filed a complaint against Hosanna-Tabor in district court in September 2007. Perich added her own claim in district court in March 2008. She wanted money and reinstatement.

The question was whether the law should consider Perich a minister or just an elementary school teacher.

If she just taught math, language arts or social studies it would be a simple discrimination case under the ADA. She would claim she was dismissed in retaliation because she told her employer she was going to assert her rights.

But Perich didn't just teach secular subjects. She taught a religion class, attended chapel services with her students, led the class in prayer and held devotionals each morning.

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