It’s almost the first Monday in October, and the Supreme Court’s first week includes a religious employer case. These issues have been percolating for a few years, and both the Fourth Circuit and Maryland recently weighed in with decisions.
In the Supreme Court case, a teacher at a Christian school charged that her termination violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. After several years as a teacher of both secular and religious courses, Cheryl Perich developed narcolepsy, and missed several months of the school year. The school refused to permit her return, and she threatened to sue under the ADA. The school then contended that her suit threat contravened the religious principles of the Evangelical Lutheran sect.
The case presents an interesting intersection of the religious exemption problems that come up in employment cases. One exemption is afforded institutions to permit employment decisions based on religion. The exemption furthers freedom of religion as well as the separation of church and state. A teacher of Jewish studies can be fired by his school for doctrinal reasons, or for not adhering to certain tenets of the faith. But in this case, the teacher claims two things: one, that she was fired in retaliation for taking time off for her disability, and complaining of her treatment; and two, if the reason was religion-based (an avoidance of conflict, for example), she should not fall within the ministerial exemption because, for one reasons, she taught secular subjects for the most part, with a minimal religious component.