by Art Gutman Ph.D., Professor, Florida Institute of Technology
This case was featured in an Alert on 10/18/11 featuring the Supreme Court’s oral arguments on 10/15/11. The question was whether Cheryl Perich met the definition of “minister.” If so, the church would be entitled to the “ministerial exception” under the 1st Amendment, thereby foiling her claims of discrimination. At the lower levels, the district court granted summary judgment to the church, but the 6th Circuit reversed. However, in a unanimous ruling on 1/11/12 (2012 U.S. LEXIS 578), the Supreme Court ruled that Cheryl Perich met the definition of “minister”, and therefore, the church was entitled to the “ministerial exception” under the 1st Amendment.
As previously noted Cheryl Perich, a teacher, was diagnosed with narcolepsy and given a medical leave of absence with the promise that her job would be held open. However, Hosanna-Tabor ultimately denied Perich’s request to return to work and she threatened to sue. Perich was then fired. Had Perich been a public school teacher, this would be a no-brainer retaliation ruling in her favor. However, churches may discriminate for any reason for the position of minister. There is no doubt that the exception applies to Priests, Rabbis and any other leaders of a congregation. The question here was whether the exception applies to a “called” teacher.
More specifically, Hosanna-Tabor has (1) “lay” or “contract” teachers, who are clearly not ministers, and (2) “called” teachers, who must complete colloquy classes and receive a certificate of admission into the teaching ministry. Once admitted, called teachers received the title of “commissioned minister.” The EEOC argued that the exception does not apply to Perich because her duties mimicked those of the lay teachers (she taught math, language arts, social studies, science, gym, art, and music).
To make a long story short, the Supreme Court extended the ministerial exception to “called” teachers, but emphasized that its ruling is narrow. Speaking for the Court, Justice Roberts ruled:
Every Court of Appeals to have considered the question has concluded that the ministerial exception is not limited to the head of a religious congregation, and we agree. We are reluctant, however, to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister. It is enough for us to conclude, in this our first case involving the ministerial exception, that the exception covers Perich, given all the circumstances of her employment.
Basically, in addition to her label as a “minister”, Roberts ruled that “ Perich held herself out as a minister of the Church by accepting the formal call to religious service, according to its terms.” Perich also claimed a special housing allowance available to employees who are are compensated in “the exercise of the ministry” and, following her termination, she filled out a form stating "I feel that God is leading me to serve in the teaching ministry. . . . I am anxious to be in the teaching ministry again soon."
In short, it appears that the church won not only for its label of “minister”, but because Perich held acted in accordance with the label.