One of the most recent decisions of the United States Supreme Court has provoked a debate on religious freedoms in the context of employment law and continues to remain controversial. The case calls the employment relationship between religious organisations and their employees into question because of its ruling on the application of the First Amendment of United States Constitution to these types of employment relationships. However, the court ultimately ruled that the the employment discrimination exception found in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution does apply in this case to prevent the complainant from making a claim in this case.
The case involved a Lutheran Church group from Missouri which categorised teachers as either “called” or “lay”. The later were presumed to have been chosen by god to participate in their occupation and the former had not. The criteria for proving the calling was the completion of studies in theology. However, a lay teacher was not required to fulfil this requirement. In general, for the teaching of lessons, the church would preference called teachers and call lay teachers when a called person unavailable. The case revolved around a woman named Cheryl Perich who had completed the required training and became a ‘called’ teacher. Perich commenced a career as a teacher but subsequently fell victim to narcolepsy which forced her to take disability leave. The school made arrangements to fill he position using a lay teacher and began to negotiate a severance package with Perich. However, she refused to accept the severance offered by the school and demanded that she be allowed to return to work. She was later terminated by the school on the grounds of “insubordination and disruptive behaviour” as well as the threat of legal action.
Subsequently, Perich filed an action with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) on the basis of an unlawful termination with reference of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The EEOC eventually took up her cause because the employer had cited a reason for the dismissal as the threat of taking legal action. The argument raised by Hosanna-Tabor was that Perich was prevented from suing on the basis of the First Amendment of the Federal Constitution. The Federal District Court granted judgement in favor of Hossana-Tabor.
However, the Sixth Circuit Court reversed this decision because it found that Perich was not a minister of religion. In the view of the Sixth Circuit Court, it was open to Perich to make a claim of discrimination. However, the Supreme Court later ruled that there were three main mistakes in the reasoning of the Sixth Circuit Court. The most important of these mistakes according to the unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court was that no importance was ascribed to the fact that Perich was a commissioned minister who had received a significant degree of training and given a public declaration of her status as such. Another thing that contributed to the Sixth Circuit Court falling into error was that too much significance was ascribed to the observation that non-ministers performed similar work to ministers. The court highlighted that this is particularly the case given that the lay persons only performed these functions in a replacement role. Finally, it was found that too much credit was given to the notion that Perich also performed secular duties in the organisation.
Because of these perceived errors, the United States Supreme Court reversed this decision and found in favour of Perich. There were a number of reasons given by the court for the reversal of the Sixth Circuit Court’s decision. The court confirmed the jurisprudence relating to the exception for appointments of ministers of religion from the terms of employment discrimination law under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 remained valid. It held that Perich was indeed a minister of religion and that she could not, therefore make a claim of religious discrimination which would require a construction of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that involved the intrusion of the Federal government into the decision making of a religious organisation specifically contemplated by the First Amendment and designed to prevent the nationalisation of a religion in the United States. Religious groups welcomed the decision because it has ultimately affirmed the rights in relation to employment granted to religious groups under the First Amendment of the Federal Constitution. However, the decision has provoked some criticism from secular groups who have said that such broad protection for churches from the law of anti-discrimination is not healthy for churches or religious organisations in terms of diversity.
By David Coleman