LCMS school in Supreme Court case

The Supreme Court will decide whether a teacher at an LCMS school can sue under a federal law against workplace discrimination. The issue is whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to decisions involving “ministerial employees” such as teachers.

While I think that religious institutions should be exempt from federal laws such as these (it just gets too tricky navigating the First Amendment free exercise clause), I also think the case is interesting for what it says about the terminology we use to describe commissioned teachers. The CNN story is here. Here’s a sample:

Court records show Cheryl Perich went on medical leave for narcolepsy in 2004. When she tried to return several months later to the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, officials refused to accept her, saying a substitute had been hired to complete the school year.

After weeks of often acrimonious discussions between herself and the school, Perich was fired for insubordination and “regrettable” conduct toward church leaders. She then complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which then sued the church on her behalf.

Perich had been hired five years earlier, and eventually became a “called” teacher, meaning she could not be fired without cause.

Assigned to third and fourth grades, she led instruction in math, language arts, social studies, gym and music, with much of the curriculum identical to the local public schools. Perich also taught a religion class four days a week, and engaged in daily prayers and devotionals with her students. The religion-based activities typically took up about 45 minutes of the seven-hour school day.

She also led chapel services with her class twice a year, on a rotation basis with other instructors.

The faculty has two types of teachers – “lay” employees who are on one-year contracts; and called teachers like Perich who have completed a formal colloquy, receiving a certificate of admission into the teaching ministry. Those parochial instructors are hired on an open-ended basis and cannot be summarily dismissed without proper justification. Perich began as a contract teacher, but fulfilled the requirements to be a called teacher, becoming a “commissioned minister” in the Lutheran Church.

The Redford, Michigan, school is affiliated with the Lutheran-Missouri Synod, but does not require its teachers to be called, or even Lutheran.

Federal courts have upheld a exception in the ADA blocking government intrusion in the employment decisions between religious institutions and ministerial workers.

A federal appeals court in Cincinnati eventually ruled for Perich, saying her primary duties as a teacher were not religious in nature.

What do you think about the case and its implications for the LCMS?

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