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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

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And I'm Melissa Block. The Supreme Court seemed deeply divided today as it grappled with a question that pits religious law against civil law. At issue was the question of who is a minister, and whether anyone deemed a minister by a church is exempt from the nation's civil rights laws. The court's eventual decision will have profound implications for the nation's religious institutions and the people who work in them. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The case before the court began when Cheryl Perich, a tenured teacher at a parochial school, took disability leave after she was diagnosed with narcolepsy. On the steps of the Supreme Court today, Perich said that when her doctor certified that she was ready to return to work, the school asked her to resign, and she threatened to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

CHERYL PERICH: Their response was to fire me. I can't fathom how the Constitution would be interpreted in such a way as to deny me my civil rights as an elementary schoolteacher.

TOTENBERG: The Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church in Redford, Michigan, does not dispute that it fired Perich for threatening to sue. The school maintains that although she taught primarily nonreligious subjects, like math and science, Perich is a minister exempt from the provisions of federal anti-discrimination law. Because she's a minister, the church explains, Lutheran doctrine requires that any disputes be resolved internally within the church. Outside the Supreme Court today, church lawyer Douglas Laycock said the rule is simple.

DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: If you're hired to teach the doctrine of the church, you're a minister.

TOTENBERG: And Perich did teach one religion course, as well as leading her students in prayer. But inside the Supreme Court, lawyer Laycock immediately ran into a buzz saw. Justice Sotomayor: How about a teacher who reports sexual abuse and is fired for that? Doesn't society have a right to say certain conduct is unacceptable, even when it occurs in a religious institution? Justice Kennedy: She was fired for simply asking for a hearing. If there are some substantial issues that the church has, that can be litigated in an EEOC hearing.

Laycock hesitated, and Justice Scalia leaped in to help. I think your point is that it's none of the government's business who is a minister. Chief Justice Roberts: How do we decide who's a minister? Suppose it's just a teacher who leads prayer in a cafeteria at lunch? Answer: She would not be covered as a minister. Roberts again. Some churches believe everybody is a minister? Answer: In cases like that, the court might determine how many secular duties the individual performs?

Justice Kennedy exasperated. But that is this case. Justice Scalia: What is the legal definition of a minister? Answer: If you teach the doctrine of the faith, you're a minister. Justice Ginsburg: But there was no difference in the duties Perich performed before when she was a lay teacher and after she was commissioned. Indeed, said Ginsburg, the majority of teachers in Lutheran churches are lay ministers and not commissioned officers of the church. Justice Sotomayor: Some of those lay teachers are not even Lutheran, but under your theory because they teach a religion course, they would be ministers even though they're not members of the faith. Justice Scalia: So you'd be here even if Perich wasn't ordained. Answer: Yes.

Defending Perich's right to sue was the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, represented by Assistant Solicitor General Leondra Kruger. She faced an even tougher battering from the justices after she asserted that Congress was within its rights in making it illegal to fire a fourth-grade teacher for asserting her rights under the disabilities law. Chief Justice Roberts: Is there anything special about the fact that the people involved in this case are part of a religious organization? Answer: The basic contours are not different, but they may play out differently.

At that, Justice Scalia exploded. That's extraordinary. There's nothing in the Constitution that explicitly prohibits the government from mucking around in a labor organization. But there, in black and white, in the text of the Constitution, are special protections for religion. Justice Alito: Do you accept the proposition that one of the central concerns of the Constitution's Establishment Clause was preventing government from choosing ministers? Answer: No, we don't. But what we do dispute is that applying generally applicable principles to religious employers amounts to choosing a minister.

Justice Breyer: Suppose that resolving disputes internally is a central tenet of the Lutheran Missouri synod. Answer: There's a difference between those who preach the word of God and give sacraments, and those employed in a school. Following lawyer Kruger to the lectern was Perich's personal lawyer, Walter Dellinger. He literally got one word out of his mouth before the justices pounced. Justice Kagan: Assume that there's a ministerial exception to the law, then who counts as a minister? Answer: Perich was not a minister because she carried out important secular functions.

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