Supreme Court Considers Case on Discrimination in Religious Schools

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the U.S. Supreme Court today, the justices heard arguments over nothing less than the founding principle of the separation of church and state.

At the heart of today's case is whether or not the Americans With Disabilities Act applies to the hiring and firing of — quote — "ministerial employees at religious institutions."

Well, joining us now to walk through the arguments, Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal.

Welcome back.

MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal: Hi, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Interesting case, Marcia.

MARCIA COYLE: Fascinating.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So tell us about the facts and the arguments of each side.


For about 40 years, our federal courts have recognized an exception to the nation's job bias laws, an exception for lawsuits involving ministers and priests. That's where we get the name the ministerial exception. And that exception is rooted in the religion clauses in the First Amendment.

And basically it's designed to keep government from being entangled in the business of religious institutions. Cheryl Perich was a lay teacher hired by a Lutheran church school in Michigan back in 1999. She taught primarily secular subjects, but she also taught a religion class and sometimes led the class in prayer.

She got sick around 2004 and took a leave of absence from the school, eventually was diagnosed with narcolepsy, wanted to return…

JUDY WOODRUFF: … fall asleep.

MARCIA COYLE: Right — wanted to return to her job after about six months. Doctors certified she could.

When she approached the school, the school said they had concerns about her returning, and they had decided — the church had decided that she should resign. She didn't want to resign. She showed up for work when she said she would. The school said that they didn't have a job for her, and she threatened at that point to bring a discrimination charge on the basis of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Shortly after that, the school informed her she had been fired for insubordination. She went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and claimed she was being retaliated against for filing — for threatening to file a discrimination charge.

The EEOC took it to court. The church claimed she wasn't being retaliated against. She was insubordinate because she violated a tenet of the church's religion that disputes should be handled internally, not going to courts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so what's the question before the justices, and how did they question — how did they question the lawyers on each side?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, the case got to the court because the church lost in the federal appellate court, which said that the ministerial exception that the church wanted to apply here didn't apply, that she wasn't a minister, so that…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meaning they did not — then the church wouldn't have to abide by the rules of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

MARCIA COYLE: Exactly. So the Supreme Court today heard arguments on, what is the ministerial exception, who is a minister, and should it apply to Cheryl Perich?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in the questioning, what sense did you get from the justices? Were they genuinely trying to get more information? You were saying earlier it was interesting to watch them.

MARCIA COYLE: They were very engaged in this argument. And you came away feeling they were very frustrated as well.

They're wrestling with two sort of competing interests here. They want to keep government from getting entangled in religious institutions, and yet they also want to see that workers for religious institutions who had discrimination claims can get into court.

So most of the argument and questions focused on the definition of who is a minister. The church's attorney claimed, well, basically, if you have been ordained or commissioned, you are a minister, but also if you teach a religious class, even if it's just one class in the term, you are also a minister. And this provoked a lot of hypotheticals from the justices.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how comfortable did you get the sense they would be digging into the tenets of a church to decide what's what, who's a minister and who isn't?

MARCIA COYLE: Not really comfortable at all. But, again, there's this tension that they want people to be able to at least get a foot into court to say when the exception raised by their religious employer that, I'm not a minister.

And Justice Alito, for example, said, well, I just don't see how you don't then get into the religious business of the church. What is a central tenet, for example, of the Lutheran faith, that you can only resolve disputes internally? Doesn't that involve bringing in experts to testify. And Justice Breyer said he didn't see how you got out of this thicket either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Marcia, is the principle of separation of church and state fully at stake here in what they decide?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, it's at stake in terms of our job bias laws. Depending on how the court looks at this exception and how broadly or narrowly it writes a decision, it could have an impact even beyond our job bias laws. It could have an impact on religious institutions' liability for other harms involving their workers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were telling me earlier that depends to a great extent on how narrowly or how broadly the justices choose to look at this.


And I have to say, Judy, it really wasn't clear after the argument what they were going to do, other than that they didn't seem happy with the church's definition of minister and they didn't seem happy with the government's defense that it had an overriding compelling interest in allowing people to bring to the government examples of illegal conduct such as discrimination.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean you couldn't read the justices' minds?


MARCIA COYLE: I wish I could.



Marcia Coyle, The National Law Journal, thank you.

MARCIA COYLE: Mymy pleasure, Judy.