Cheryl Perich sued Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Michigan alleging that the church school violated the American with Disabilities Act by firing her. Perich had been a teacher with a class load of primarily secular courses when she went on sick leave in 2004 for a condition known as narcolepsy, a chronic sleep disorder. When she tried to return to work, administrators urged her to quit, saying they already had hired a replacement for her. When she threatened to sue under the disabilities law, the school fired her, saying she had been insubordinate by threatening to go outside the church’s ecclesiastical appeal procedures.
Cheryl Perich filed a complaint with the government based on laws prohibiting discrimination against Americans with disabilities, but the court ruled it had no jurisdiction over the employment decisions of religious institutions calling it a separation of church and state.
Within the opinion Supreme Court Justice Roberts wrote, “The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.”
The court stopped short of saying whether the exception would apply to nonministerial employees and left open the possibility that the Michigan Lutheran school teacher who sued might have a case under another legal argument. The court also pointedly avoided setting boundaries for who can be considered a religious employee, concluding only that Cheryl Perich fit the definition.