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In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that church employees, whose jobs include preaching their faith, cannot sue for employment discrimination. It's the first time the court has recognized a ministerial exception to anti-discrimination laws. But the decision applies to more than ministers. They can apply to church teachers and other employees.

As we hear from NPR's Nina Totenberg, the case began with a Lutheran teacher fired over a disability.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Cheryl Perich, a teacher at the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church in Michigan, took leave when she was diagnosed with narcolepsy. But when her doctor certified her to return to work, the school asked her to resign. And when 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 school teacher.

TOTENBERG: The school did not dispute it fired Perich because of her threat to sue, but it maintained that part of its faith requires that such disputes be resolved only internally, within the church.

Today, the Supreme Court said the church acted in accordance with the Constitution's freedom of religion. Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that since the passage of the Civil Rights Act nearly a half century ago, the lower courts have carved out an exception that allows ministers to be hired and fired without regard to the civil rights laws.

Today, the Supreme Court made that position the law of the land. But on the more difficult question of determining who is and is not a minister, the court was equivocal, saying that would have to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

The court, however, used Cheryl Perich's case to set out some broad guidelines. It agreed that even though the bulk of Perich's time was spent teaching secular classes like math and science, she still qualified as a minister. She led her students in prayer each day, escorted them to chapel, taught a religion class four times a week, and she was what the church designated as a called teacher, as opposed to a contract teacher.

While contract teachers had the same duties, the court said, Perich, in order to qualify for tenure, completed an ecclesiastical course of study at a Lutheran college. And after passing an oral exam, she was issued a ministerial commission. None of these factors alone would be determinative, said the court. But taken together, they were.

Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged both the interest of society in enforcing anti-discrimination laws and the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission. The Constitution, he said, strikes the balance in Perich's case by requiring the church be free to choose those who will guide its way.

Experts were divided today about just how far reaching the court's decision is. University of Virginia law Professor Douglas Laycock, who represented Hosanna-Tabor, saw the ruling as a homerun for the church.

DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: It is unanimous. It's unanimous that she counts as a minister. It's unanimous that ministers can't sue. It's unanimous that it doesn't matter whether the church had a religious reason or not. The courts can't inquire into that. That's the story here today.

TOTENBERG: George Washington University law professor Ira Lupu agrees.

IRA LUPU: When the court says that you can have no inquiry into whether this religious reason is pre-textual and just a cover for some kind of discrimination, that is a big deal.

TOTENBERG: Others, however, disagreed. Here's Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion, which filed a brief supporting Perich.

DANIEL MACH: Obviously, we are disappointed in the result. But, really, in the grand scheme, I don't think that the implications of this case are all that broad. It's a relatively unique, limited set of facts.

TOTENBERG: Other experts also characterized the decision as narrow, noting that religious organizations did not get what they ultimately wanted, a total immunity from lawsuits. Indeed, the court acknowledged the parade of horribles that some have suggested, that a church could fire someone for reporting sexual abuse to police or for reporting school health and safety violations to civil authorities. And the court today went out of its way to leave those kinds of questions unresolved.

Justice Thomas, in a concurrence, said he would have completely deferred to the church on all such questions. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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