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Will Supreme Court Ruling Impact LSU-3 Case?

In light of Wednesday’s U. S. Supreme Court ruling on the Ministerial Exception that exempts “ministers” from anti-bias laws, the following press release was issued by McCuneWright, LLP, the law firm representing the three La Sierra University faculty and administrators currently suing their employer and various denominational leaders over wrongful termination. NPR details some major conclusions from today’s ruling:

Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that since the passage of the Civil Rights Act nearly a half-century ago, the lower courts have always carved out an exception that allows ministers to be hired and fired without regard to civil rights laws. Now the Supreme Court has agreed, making that position the law of the land. But on the more difficult question of determining who is and is not a minister, the court was equivocal, saying that would have to be determined on a case-by-case basis.


The court, however, used Perich’s case to show how to weigh the relevant factors. It agreed that even though the bulk of Perich’s time was spent teaching secular classes like math and science, she still qualified as a minister. The court noted that Perich led her students in prayer each day, escorted her students to chapel, taught a religious class four times a week and was what the church designated as a “called teacher,” as opposed to a contract teacher. While contract teachers had the same duties, the court said, to qualify for tenure, Perich completed an ecclesiastical course of study at a Lutheran college, and after passing an oral exam, she was issued a ministerial commission.


None of these factors alone would be determinative, the court said, but taken together, they were.


Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged both the interest of society in enforcing anti-discrimination laws and the interest of religious groups in “choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.” The Constitution, he said, strikes the balance in Perich’s case by requiring that the church be free to choose those who will guide its way.

But some questions remain: 

Still to be determined is how all this plays out in practice. Will the ruling allow religious organizations to fire a “ministerial” employee for reporting sexual abuse to the police, or for reporting health and safety violations at a church or school to civil authorities? It would appear the answer to that question is “yes” — though Roberts pointed out that churches can still be held criminally liable. Unanswered, though, is whether a fired employee can sue for breach of contract or some other wrong.

LSU Press Release 01.11.12

La Sierra University was also contacted, but had no comment.

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