Supreme Court Says Teacher Cannot Pursue Disability Discrimination Claim Against Religious School

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court recently ruled that Cheryl Perich, a tenured teacher at a Lutheran elementary school in Michigan, had no right to sue the school for employment discrimination after she was laid off for taking time off to combat narcolepsy. The case, which set disability law against the Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom, was a setback for disability rights advocates across the country.

The facts of the case centered around Ms. Perich's status as a "called teacher" at the school. In order to become a called teacher, as opposed to a lay teacher, a candidate must complete a course of study at a Lutheran college and be approved by a vote of the congregation. Once approved, the teacher is called a Minister of Religion, Commissioned, and can be removed from her position only by a supermajority vote of the congregation that hired her. Part of Ms. Perich's duties as a called teacher included religious instruction, and she occasionally led chapel services.

Ms. Perich's problems began in 2004, when she was diagnosed with narcolepsy, a sleep disorder, and missed the entire fall semester. When Ms. Perich indicated that she was ready to come back to work, she was told that her position had been filled by another teacher. After Ms. Perich threatened to file a lawsuit against the school for unfairly terminating her due to her disability, the congregation voted to rescind her call. Ms. Perich filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which brought an unfair retaliation suit against the school under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In court, the school argued that it was allowed to terminate Mr. Perich for any reason because she was a minister, not just a teacher. Citing a long line of cases dating back more than a century, the school pointed out that the Supreme Court has said that the government cannot interfere in a church's decision to hire or fire a minister, because such interference would hinder the church's free exercise of religion, a right protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

In an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, a unanimous Supreme Court agreed with the school, declaring that the First Amendment bars "an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church's decision to fire her." The Court determined that Ms. Perich clearly was a minister because the circumstances of her employment, her title as Minister of Religion, the fact that she had to be called by the congregation, and the requirement that she pass an examination by the faculty of a Lutheran college all combined to make her one. The Court explained that "[b]y requiring the Church to accept a minister it did not want, such an order [reinstating Ms. Perich] would have plainly violated the Church's freedom under the Religion Clause to select its own ministers."

You can read the Supreme Court's decision here.

Article Last Modified: 01/29/2012