NEW RULING FROM THE SUPREME COURT
On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued a ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, finding that the Church as well within its rights to terminate an employee with a disability under facts and circumstances which appeared to allow the Church to discriminate against her because of that disability.Ms. Perich was employed by Hosanna Tabor (HT) as a lay teacher. She was offered the opportunity to become a “called” teacher which meant that she underwent training and received certification as a minister of the church. She led her classes’ religious studies and even led church services twice a year. Ms. Perich was considered to be a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church.Ms. Perich was diagnosed with Narcolepsy and took disability leave. When she was prepared to return from leave, the Church advised her that she had been replaced by a lay teacher. The Church offered to pay her health insurance in exchange for her resignation but she refused and sued for discrimination on the basis of her disability.The Ministerial Exception as provided by the First Amendment allows a church to hire or fire its ministers for any reason without interference from the legislature into the internal governance of the religious institution. Finding Ms. Perich to be a minister in the Church, the SCOTUS found that the Church was protected by the First Amendment in its decision to fire Ms. Perich, even though it was in retaliation for taking ADA/FMLA leave.The SCOTUS would likely have ruled differently if Ms. Perich had been “lay” teacher. In that instance, she would have received the full protection of the applicable employment laws and the Church would not have been able to get away with replacing her while she was on disability leave without consequences.Employees of religious organizations should not be discouraged by this ruling unless your status is similar to Ms. Perich’s, i.e. that you are considered to be a minister or have some other religious title within the organization. And please remember, that these types of cases are very fact specific.