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Supreme Court rejects Obama administration arguments in 'most important' religious freedom case

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 11 2012 1:45 p.m. MST

In this May 3, 2011 file photo, the Supreme Court is seen in Washington.

Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court decided against the Obama administration today on what many have called the most important religious freedom case in decades. The case pitted the rights of religious organizations to choose their own ministers against the government's interest in preventing discrimination in the workplace. In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Supreme Court unanimously acknowledged the existence of a "ministerial exception" that bans the government from interfering with religious organizations' right to choose their own ministers.

The court rejected what Chief Justice John Roberts called the "extreme position" of the EEOC to limit the ministerial exception to only those employees who are engaged in "exclusively religious functions." Although lower federal courts had recognized the ministerial exception for four decades, this is the first time the Supreme Court has addressed the issue.

The decision has impact on practically every religious organization in America -- addressing questions related to religious freedom and the self-governance of churches as well as defining the reach of employment discrimination claims against religious employers.

UNANIMOUS

Hannah Clayson Smith, is senior counsel at the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, which, along with Professor Douglas Laycock at the University of Virginia Law School, successfully represented the Hosanna-Tabor church and school in this case. "You saw a unanimous Supreme Court saying that the government has no business interfering with who a church chooses to be its minister," Smith said. "It rejected the administration's view of churches as inherently discriminatory. Basically the administration's position was 'We can't trust these churches to not discriminate.'"

"I was surprised that the decision was unanimous," said Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program at Princeton University. "The fact that not even the most liberal justices on the court regarded that position as tenable just shows you how wildly out of bounds the Obama administration's position was."

Gregory M. Lipper is senior litigation counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State , which filed an amicus brief on the side of the teacher who was fired. Lipper was also surprised at the unanimous decision. He said the justices seemed more closely divided at the oral arguments. "It was surprising that it was so unanimous and that it was so broad," Lipper said. "Many of the justices seemed taken aback by the government's position. ... But the government is often a plaintiff in employment discrimination lawsuits, so you can understand why they were arguing for little or no exception."

A FIRED MINISTER/TEACHER

The facts of the case revolved around Cheryl Perich, a teacher at a small Lutheran church and school called Hosanna-Tabor in Redford, Michigan. The church hired "called" teachers at its school -- educators who have gone through extensive religious instruction and are believed by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod to have been called by God through a church congregation.

Perich worked as a called teacher or minister at Hosanna-Tabor. But then she fell ill and was on disability leave for what was later diagnosed as narcolepsy. The school hired a replacement, but Perich refused to accept a "peaceful release" and monetary settlement. The congregation fired her outright after she threatened a discrimination lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The EEOC's resulting case on her behalf was rejected by the District Court because it fell under the ministerial exception -- Perich was a minister and the government couldn't interfere.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, however, said the ministerial exception didn't apply because Perich was a secular teacher because the majority of her time was spent teaching non-religious subjects.

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