In yet another stunning attack on freedom of religion, President Barack Obama’s Justice Department asked the Supreme Court last week to give the federal government the power to tell a church who its ministers will be.
The case involves a former teacher at Lutheran school, who along with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is pushing a claim that a Lutheran congregation should be forced to restore her ministry position.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State and American Atheists, Inc. have filed briefs siding with the Obama administration against the church.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, and the American Center for Law and Justice are among those who have filed briefs supporting the Lutherans.
In 1999, the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich., hired Cheryl Perich to be a lay teacher on a one-year contract in its kindergarten.
The next year, Perich became a “called” teacher at the school after she became a commissioned minister in the church.
“To receive a call, a candidate must be selected by a local church congregation,” said a brief the church submitted to the Supreme Court that was prepared by lawyers at the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty and Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia Law School.
“At Hosanna-Tabor, the school board typically presents a choice of candidates to the congregation, and after prayerfully considering the candidates, the congregation extends a call via congregational vote,” the brief said. “Once the call has been accepted, the candidate is installed in office via the public rite of ‘commissioning,’ and is recognized as a ‘Minister of Religion, Commissioned’ — also known as a ‘commissioned minister.'”
As a minister in the school, Perich taught religious classes, led students in prayer and performed other religious tasks. She was also expected to integrate the teaching of the Lutheran faith into all so-called “secular” classes, including math, science, social studies and art.
In 2004, Perich was diagnosed with narcolepsy and was unable to teach the fall semester. In January 2005, when she could not return, the school hired another teacher to take her place during the spring.
Later that month, according to a brief filed by the Justice Department’s Office of the Solicitor General, Perich informed the school’s principal, Stacey Hoeft, via email that she would be able to return to work the following month.
The principal informed her they had already hired a replacement teacher for the rest of the year.
The congregation then voted to ask Perich for a “peaceful release from her call.”
“‘Peaceful release’ is a religious act by which a congregation and a called minister agree to release one another from the mutual obligations of the call,” says the brief submitted by the church. “Peaceful releases are common, and they leave the called minister in good standing and eligible for a new call.”
Perich declined to be peacefully released. In late February, she showed up at the school and met with Principal Hoeft.
“Later that day, Perich told Hoeft that if she were not reinstated, she would sue the church,” said the church’s brief. “Hoeft immediately asked Perich if that were what she really meant, because a lawsuit would clearly violate the church’s conflict resolution policy applicable to called employees. Perich repeated the threat.”
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod explained this teaching in its own brief: “St. Paul teaches in his first letter to the Corinthians that Christians should generally resolve their disputes internally without going to the secular courts for relief.” For this reason, the church has developed procedures for settling internal disputes.
A few weeks after the meeting between Perich and Hoeft, the Hosanna-Tabor congregation voted to “rescind Perich’s call” because she had threatened to sue the church contrary to the church’s teaching.
“The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a complaint against the church under the Americans With Disabilities Act, alleging a single count of retaliation,” says the church’s brief. “Perich intervened, alleging the same retaliation claim and adding a retaliation claim under state law. Neither complaint alleges disability discrimination. Both complaints request an order reinstating Perich to her former position as a commissioned minister, together with back pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and injunctive relief ordering new ‘policies, practices, and programs’ at the church.”
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod told the court in its brief that its views on the ministry and the settlement of disputes may not be “widely shared” or “widely understood.” “But,” the church said, “they have been the views of orthodox Lutherans for centuries.”
Acting Deputy Solicitor General Leondra Kruger told the court, during oral arguments, that the federal government should be able to trump the church on these decisions.
“Their submission is that the hiring and firing decisions with respect to parochial school teachers and with respect to priests is categorically off limits,” said Kruger. “And we think that that is a rule that is insufficiently attentive to the relative public and private interests at stake, interests that this court has repeatedly recognized are important in determining freedom of association claims.”
Kruger contended this did not mean the government could order the Catholic Church to ordain female priests. But, even then, according to her argument, it would be a matter of the government weighing “the relative public and private interests at stake.”
What is at stake is the First Amendment and the religious freedom of all Americans.