Are church staff also citizens? Michigan Christian school case raises question

The Supreme Court heard arguments last week related to a Michigan church school where a teacher was let go after she threatened to file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She had been out on disability, and on return was told her services were no longer required.

Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church says the congregation released her from her “calling” as a minister to fourth grade students.

She says she was fired from her job at a church school because she had a disability, narcolepsy (falling asleep unpredictably).

And in those different definitions of the situation we find the gap in perspective that the Court must wrestle through.

What aspects of a minister’s employment are protected under the First  Amendment? Certainly the minister and the church must be free to exercise their religion — that is what the First Amendment is about.

But does free exercise of religion shield churches from wage law, from tax law, from laws that protect people from workplace hazards, from local fire and health codes, from the possibility of being sued in civil court?

This last is what the Michigan church claims. It claims that by its faith, disputes are to be settled within its walls. And we all know the scripture to which they refer:

If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? 2 Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! 4 Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? 5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? 6But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers! 7 The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? (Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 6: 1-8) 8

I can guess why former teacher Cheryl Perich would rather not be wronged: she wanted to hang on to a position that, we have to presume, she enjoyed and did well, given that she’d been there for four years (from 2000 to 2004). She also needs health insurance. Given that she has a pre-existing condition, she probably can’t buy any until 2014, assuming that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act hasn’t been gutted by then.

In this economy, I can also guess why Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran School is claiming that it’s got a First Amendment legal stake in the game. Cheryl Perich has a disability. She’s expensive to insure. She may miss more time, and require more paid substitutes than some other “called ministers” do. Given the choice between making the budget and breaking the budget, I might go all First Amendment, too.

But either one could have backed down. In mercy, Hosanna-Tabor could have chosen to be wronged (if it considers itself wronged in continuing to employ someone who is disabled and willing to go to court over it), Thereby, the church would have avoided having this end up in front of unbelievers. Instead, with the case in front of the nation’s highest Court and spread across the international media, no matter who wins, according to the Apostle Paul, our faith is “completely defeated.”

I know of churches that have used (or attempted to use) their “religious exemption” to avoid providing employees COBRA transitional health care, ignore the Wetlands Protection Act when constructing a new building, employ one person in two part-time jobs so as not to pay benefits, and make intrusive inquiries of new employees about health topics that are unrelated to their job responsibilities. I find it sad to be reading major news stories about a church that is using its “religious exemption” to determine that a disabled employee is no longer needed.

Is that what “free exercise of religion” is supposed to look like? And is this the “free exercise” of the kind of religion Jesus practiced?

About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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