Supreme Court Watch: Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC
Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC asks a series of fascinating questions about the First Amendment, the Separation of Church and State, the rights of employees, and the constitutional limitations of the Federal government. See here for the official filing.
The Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church in Redford, Michigan was founded in 1955 as the amalgam of the Tabor Lutheran Church (established 1916) and the Hosanna Lutheran Church (est. 1948). There is a parochial school attached to the church, the Concordia Lutheran School, which was sued in 2004, by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), for firing a teacher. The Church is appealing the right of the EEOC to sue, and claiming the ADA does not apply. The question before the court is not the merits of the underlying case, but rather whether the suit should be allowed. Hosanna-Tabor is thus the Petitioner, and the EEOC is the Respondent.
In 2004, a teacher at the Concordia Lutheran School, Cheryl Perich, became ill and was forced to take a months-long leave of absence, during which she collected disability payments. She was finally diagnosed with narcolepsy, received treatment, and pronounced able to return to work without restrictions. She claimed that the school instead asked her to resign. When she refused, they fired her.
Ms. Perich filed a complaint with the EEOC, which ruled in her favor and authorized a lawsuit under the ADA. The school claimed that the “ministerial exception” should allow them to hire and fire whom they pleased, and that the ADA, therefore, could not apply.
The “ministerial exception” is an oft-cited concept in American law, deriving from the First Amendment, that claims the employment decisions of a religious institution, particularly as regards people who perform religious duties, should not be subject to government interference. Since Ms. Perich taught religious instruction classes (along with a full secular curriculum), the church argued that the Federal government, through the EEOC, had no standing to bring suit.
The district court agreed with the school. The EEOC appealed this decision, and the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals held that Perich’s role at the school was not religious in nature, and therefore the ministerial exception did not apply. The Circuit Court thus overturned the lower court’s ruling, and remanded the case back to district court for a full trial on the merits. The church has now asked SCOTUS to review the Court of Appeals ruling.
Several churches and religious organizations have filed amicus briefs supporting Hosanna-Tabor. A large number of civil rights and First-Amendment organizations have supported the EEOC. See here for a listing.
One of the biggest issues here is not merely whether the “ministerial exception” applies, but whether it exists at all. SCOTUS has never addressed the issue of “ministerial exception,” never confirmed nor denied it as a Constitutional matter. One of the arguments that EEOC may make in this case is that no employer, whether religious or not, is empowered under the Constitution to violate the rights of employees. First Amendment advocates can easily argue this one either way.
Does a religious institution have the right to hire and fire whom they please? Or does an individual have the right to be protected by the law, even from religious institutions? Would the government upholding the rights of a church over that of an individual amount to “establishment of religion” (outlawed under the First Amendment), or does the wall of separation between Church and State mean that the Federal government has no right to intrude upon a religious organization’s hiring decisions?
Hosanna-Tabor may argue this under the Establishment Clause, or the Free Exercise Clause, or even the Association Clause (which forbids the government from interfering in the right of citizens to associate with whom they choose). In any of these arguments, Hosanna-Tabor will be claiming that, at least in some instances, a religious institution is above secular law. If their argument is upheld, what are the limits of that?
Ms. Perich claims that she was actively harmed by having been fired, in violation of her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. How far are religious institutions allowed to go in harming Americans, in ways that would be illegal for any other organization or corporation?
- Does the First Amendment here favor Ms Perich, or Hosanna-Tabor?
- Is a religious institution above the law — or is that the wrong question?
- What are the limits to which a church is not bound by Federal law?
- Is there a “ministerial exception” to be found in the Constitution — or is this idea Constitutionally indefensible?
- Supreme Court To Examine ‘Ministerial Exemption’ Case (brandtstandard.com)
- Supreme Court To Weigh Churches’ Hiring Rights (huffingtonpost.com)
- Major Religion Case Ushers in SCOTUS Term (blogs.wsj.com)
About dcpetterson (186 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson