Justices Tackle 'Ministerial' Issue Involving Churches

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WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a key religious rights case questioning whether those who work for religious organizations can sue for job discrimination.

Michigan teacher Cheryl Perich filed suit against the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church where she both taught school and performed ministerial duties.

The church fired her over a sleeping disorder that leaders felt interfered with her work.

"I can't fathom how the Constitution would be interpreted in such a way as to deny me my civil rights as an elementary school teacher. I sure hope the court agrees," Perich said.

Hosanna-Tabor wants the justices to throw out the case based on "ministerial exception." That rule protects religious groups from some job-related lawsuits.

"Disputes between ministers and their churches, if there's anything that's covered by separation of church and state, this is it. These cases do not belong in the civil courts," explained law professor Douglas Laycock, who's arguing for the church.

But one of the crucial questions in this case is whether Perich was considered a minister while she worked for the church.

She says she was not, but the church disagrees.

The bigger question is whether the government has a right to step in and decide.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said churches should only be exempt from laws when it comes to actual ministers.

"But when a religious institution effectively declares all of its employees to be ministers in order to avoid the strictures of America's civil rights traditions and laws, that is shameful," he said.

Some also argue that churches shouldn't be allowed ministerial exception at all.

"What they're arguing for would be an incredible transfer of power away from individual religious groups and to the government," said Kelly Shackelford, Liberty Institute president and CEO. "And we certainly hope that that won't happen."

"What the Obama administration is doing here today is another step in its full-frontal assault on religious rights," added Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director for the Judicial Crisis Network.

"We see them attacking the Conscience Clause. And here we see them attacking the rights of religious organizations to even choose their own ministers," she continued.

"If you don't have the right to choose your own minister, religious freedom doesn't mean very much," she said.

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church vs. the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission marks the first time the Supreme Court will decide on this issue.

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Paul Strand

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As senior correspondent in CBN's Washington, D.C., bureau, Paul Strand has covered a variety of political and social issues, with an emphasis on defense, justice, and Congress.  Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulStrandCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/PaulStrandCBN.