WASHINGTON (JTA) – The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of religious institutions to use "ministerial exception" to fire staff, but stopped short of setting its parameters.
A number of Jewish groups had closely watched Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a case in which a teacher alleged that a Michigan religious school had violated the American with Disabilities Act in firing her.
The school claimed that Cheryl Perich, who suffers from narcolepsy, was exempt from protection as a minister. Perich and the EEOC countered that most of her work involved secular teaching.
The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America favored allowing broad discretion to religious institutions in determining ministerial status. The Reform movement and the American Jewish Committee said considerations of whether ministry was essential to a staffer’s role should not be assessed according to hours worked, as a lower court had determined. The Anti-Defamation League sought to place the burden of proof on the employer, not the employee.
A number of Jewish groups weighed in as friends of the court.
In its decision published Wednesday, the court unanimously held that Perich fell under the "ministerial exception" rule not because of the amount of time she devoted to religious teaching — 45 minutes a day — but because she had been ordained by the church in 2000.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the opinion, said the issue "is not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch," according to the Associated Press. Roberts added that the court would not "adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister."
It was the first time that the Supreme Court considered ministerial exception, a doctrine that had been shaped by lower courts. Its decision has the effect for now of making its application the law of the land.
The OU welcomed the development.
"The Court ensured that religious communities may form houses of worship, parochial schools and other institutions whose missions are to be places of worship, learning and service for a faith community and that such institutions are constitutionally protected from interference by the secular state," Nathan Diament, its Washington director, said in a statement.