Major Religion Case Ushers in SCOTUS Term

Washington DC, USA - We just can’t help but look ahead to next week’s beginning of the 2011-12 Supreme Court term.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait long for some excitement. On Wednesday, the court will hear arguments in a case that explores the extent to which religious organizations are exempt from federal anti-discrimination laws.

It is one of the most important religious rights cases at the high court in decades, according to this Washington Post preview of the case.

At issue in the case is the “ministerial exception,” a First Amendment doctrine that restricts employment-related suits against religious organizations. Circuit courts have uniformly held that the rule bars suits by pastors, priests and rabbis who allege discrimination, but there is a divide about whether the doctrine extends to other church employees.

The Supreme Court case involves a dispute between the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran School in Redford, Mich. and a former teacher, Cheryl Perich.

The school fired Perich, after she took several months off in 2004 to treat a chronic sleep disorder, the Post reports. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a complaint alleging the church had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Perich later filed a separate complaint against the church.)

The church claimed the suit was barred by the ministerial exception, contending that Perich played a crucial role in the pastoral and religious mission of the church, according to this Supreme Court petition filed by the church. The church also denied that it fired Perich because of her medical condition.

Perich lost her first suit in federal court, but the 6th Circuit ruled in her favor last year, the Post reports.

Luke Goodrich, an attorney for the church, told the Post that the ministerial exception applies to Perich. “The purpose of the ministerial exception is to protect the right of religious institutions to choose their religious leaders,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union wrote a brief in the case asking the high court to narrowly interpret the ministerial exception, according to the Post.

“While faith communities surely have the right to set religious doctrine and decide which ministers best advance their religious beliefs and practices, they shouldn’t get a blank check to discriminate or retaliate against their employees,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.