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The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments, today, in a major case testing the rights of teachers in religious schools. At the heart of the issue is what defines a minister, and when is that individual exempt from the nation's civil rights laws?

Those laws do provide some exceptions for religious institutions. For example, the law allows religious organizations to give preference to their own believers in hiring. In this case, a religious school fired a teacher because she invoked her rights under the Americans with Disabilities law? NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has more on a question that could have huge implications.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Cheryl Perich began teaching at the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran church school in 1999 as a contract teacher. She became what's known as a called teacher, with tenure, after she completed a course of study at a Lutheran university. At Hosanna-Tabor in Redford, Michigan, Perich taught primarily non-religious subjects like math and science.

In addition, both as a contract teacher and a called teacher, she led her classes in prayer, gave the homily in chapel several times a year, and taught a religion class, for a total of 45 minutes of instruction related to religion each day.

In the fall of 2004, Perich was hospitalized and went on disability leave. In December, she told the school principal that she'd been diagnosed with narcolepsy, that treatment had begun and that her doctor expected her to be able to return to full time work in two to three months.

The following month the school made its health care insurance plan less generous, hired another teacher, and suggested Perich resign. When she refused and threatened to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act, she was fired. She filed a lawsuit under the provision of the ADA that bars retaliatory firing.

The school does not dispute that it fired Perich for threatening to sue. It maintains that she is a minister of the church and that church doctrine teaches that all such disputes must be resolved internally within the church.

University of Virginia law Professor Douglas Laycock represents the school.

DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: Our position is it doesn't matter why she was discharged. What matters is she was performing ministerial functions, and churches get to decide for themselves who their ministers ought to be.

WALTER DELLINGER: This is not a case in which anybody is deciding, for a church, who their ministers should be.

TOTENBERG: Walter Dellinger, representing Perich, points out that all of Perich's duties, including her religious duties, can be and are performed by teachers who are not called, or even Lutheran.

DELLINGER: The duties that she's performing are not those that the church or the school had reserved to people with any particular religious status.

TOTENBERG: But the school's Professor Laycock says that's simplistic.

LAYCOCK: We're not saying that this is a majority of her job. It is a majority of the religious instruction that these children are going to get, even if they go to Sunday school and church on Sunday.

TOTENBERG: Being a called minister, he argues, is much like being a nun.

LAYCOCK: Lots of nuns teach the whole secular curriculum.

TOTENBERG: And Cheryl Perich, he argues, has specialized training and an ecclesiastical office in the Lutheran church as a called teacher, a position that he says is just as religiously significant in the Lutheran tradition, as being a nun is in the Catholic tradition. What that means for called teachers, he contends, is that they are not covered by the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

LAYCOCK: They will have internal remedies, but they will not be covered by a right to go to court.

TOTENBERG: Walter Dellinger calls that a radical proposition that would exempt from the nation's civil rights laws, hundreds of thousands of teachers and other employees who work for enterprises that are religiously affiliated. It's a proposition, he adds, that would have huge ramifications for other laws as well.

DELLINGER: It would really be an extraordinary proposition to hold that religious organizations could fire anyone who complied with the child abuse reporting statutes by reporting to civil authorities that children were being abused, or could fire any employee who called health and safety violations to the attention of civil authorities.

TOTENBERG: In short, the question is where to draw the line between religious law and civil law.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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