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The Supreme Court, for the first time, has declared that the Constitution exempts ministers from the nation's anti-discrimination laws. The decision was unanimous and groundbreaking. But it left unresolved some of the thorniest questions in determining who is a minister, and who's not.
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports that the court's ruling came in the case of a parochial school teacher fired over a disability dispute.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Evangelical Church in Redford, Michigan, classified almost all of its teachers as ministers because they had completed a set of university theology courses in order to qualify for tenure, and become what's known as called teachers.
One of those teachers, Cheryl Perich, was fired after she threatened to sue the school under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The school did not dispute that she was fired for threatening to sue, nor did it dispute that Perich taught mainly non-religious subjects like math and English. But it contended that as a called teacher, she was a minister, and under church doctrine, all ministers must resolve employment disputes within the church - and not the courts.
Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the church, agreeing that the church's actions were protected by the Constitution's freedom of religion guarantee. The ruling echoed nearly 40 years of similar rulings by the lower courts.
But the high court decision did not set specific standards for determining who qualifies as a minister. It said that Perich did, and that other cases must be determined on a case-by-case basis.
Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts weighed the totality of the facts. He acknowledged that Perich devoted only 45 minutes per day, on average, to religious duties - like leading her class in prayer, or teaching a religion course. But he said the issue cannot be resolved by a stopwatch. Nor can it be resolved by the fact that contract teachers had the same duties.
Perich, he noted, after completing her course of study, had been designated a commissioned minister. She taught a religion class four times a week; and twice a year, led the students at chapel.
Experts were divided yesterday on how far-reaching the decision would be in practice. Douglas Laycock, who represented the Lutheran Church school, said in his view, anyone who teaches a religion course at a parochial school would now be exempt from the nation's civil rights laws. But others, like Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton, disagreed.
MARCI HAMILTON: It's quite narrow. And the only issue they're deciding is whether a member of the clergy can sue their own religious employer for discrimination. And they say religious employers should be able to choose who their clergy are going to be.
TOTENBERG: Daniel Mack, director of the ACLU Freedom of Religion Program, echoed that sentiment.
DANIEL MACK: I don't think they gave religious organizations a blank check. They left those decisions for another day.
TOTENBERG: But George Washington law professor Ira Lupu said the decision gives religious organizations wide latitude.
IRA LUPU: The most important thing that makes it broad is the court's repudiation of any idea that the church has to show a religious reason - a sincere, authentic, religious reason. When the court says there should - you can have no inquiry into whether this religious reason is pretextual and just a cover for some kind of discrimination, that is a big deal.
TOTENBERG: Still to be determined is how all this will play out. Will yesterday's ruling allow religious organizations to fire a ministerial employee for reporting sexual abuse to the police, or for reporting health and safety violations to civil authorities? It would appear the answer to that question is yes, though Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that churches can still be held criminally liable. Still unresolved is whether the fired employee can sue for a breach of contract, or some other wrong.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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