Religious Schools Can Discriminate Against The Disabled, Supreme Court Rules

religious schools discriminate ministersEmployers must avoid discriminating against workers for a whole host of things, like sex, race, religion, national origin or disability. But there are exceptions, like Cheryl Perich, who was fired several years ago from her teaching post after she took disability leave. That's because she taught at a Lutheran school and, according to a recent Supreme Court ruling, Perich was classified as a "minister."

The very first amendment of our Constitution forbids Congress from interfering in the free exercise of religion. When the Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964, courts recognized that employment discrimination laws couldn't apply to religious offices without violating that first and fundamental tenet. So there has long been a "ministerial exception." The Catholic church can keep women out the priesthood, for example, because religious institutions can apply such restrictions. For the first time, the Supreme Court ruled that a church could keep the disabled out too.

After Cheryl Perich developed narcolepsy, she took disability leave from her teaching post. When Perich told the principal in January 2005 that she was ready to return, the principal had already filled her post for the rest of the year. When the principal then told her to resign, she refused. And when he told her she'd likely be fired, she cited the Americans With Disabilities Act, which normally makes such a firing illegal.

The school sent Perich a letter of termination, and listed as grounds her "insubordination and disruptive behavior," as well as the damage she'd done to her "working relationship" with the school by "threatening to take legal action." Seeing this as retaliation for her threat to sue -- which is also usually illegal -- Perich filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In a unanimous ruling on Jan. 11, however, the Supreme Court concluded that the school was completely within its rights.

The case is a landmark affirmation of the "ministerial exception," but it also raises new questions about who exactly counts as a "minister." Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, where Perich taught, employs two kinds of teachers. "Called" teachers, who are ordained, teach religious subjects. "Lay" teachers aren't ordained, and teach secular ones. Perich was a "called" teacher; she taught religious classes, led her students in daily prayer, and conducted the chapel service twice a year.

Because Perich was "a commissioned minister" -- in title, and in the fact that she had a significant amount of religion training, was formally commissioned by the school, and had a fundamentally religious mission in her job description -- Perich was an undisputed "minister" in the eyes of the high court.

But the court's opinion avoided making any hard and fast rules: The job title was relevant, but not sufficient; the amount of time that Perich spent on religious versus secular tasks was relevant, but not sufficient.

The court took into account the various circumstances of Perich's employment, and decided that they had to dismiss her case, and deny her requests for backpay, frontpay, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney's fees.

"The purpose of the exception is not to safeguard's a church's decision to fire a minister only when it is made for a religious reason," wrote Chief Justice Roberts in the opinion. "The exception instead ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful is the church's alone."

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