REDFORD (WWJ) – The U.S. Supreme Court has heard arguments in an important test involving the separation of church and state in a case involving a Metro Detroit Lutheran School that fired a teacher.
Cheryl Perich was fired from Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran School in Redford after becoming ill. She wants to file a discrimination claim, but the school claims she’s a minister so federal anti-discrimination laws don’t apply.
Jim Roach, a lawyer for Perich, said the school is using religion as a cover.
“She wasn’t acting as a minister, and actually, in the Lutheran religion, should could not even be allowed to become a minister,” he said.
Added Perich, “I can’t fathom how the constitution would be interpreted in such a way as to deny me my civil rights as an elementary school teacher.”
A lawyer for the school, Douglas Laycock, said this is an easy call.
“She led the worship service, the planned the worship service, she gave short speeches on the scripture reading that looked for all the world like a sermon. She’s a minister,” Laycock said.
The justices appear at odds over whether this is discrimination or simple retaliation against a teacher, after she complained to government authorities over her treatment on the job.
Barry Lynn leads Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “When a religious institution effectively declares all of its employees to be ministers to avoid civil rights traditions and laws, that is shameful,” said Lynn.
But, Kelly Shackelford is with the Liberty Institute, which supports broad protections for churches in this case. “What they are arguing for would be an incredible transfer of power, away from individual religious groups and to the government. And we certainly hope that won’t happen,” he said.
Legal experts say federal courts have been split on this issue and say it gives the justices a rare opportunity to explore a religious freedom dispute from an employment context.