Employment law has come a long way since the 1970s, and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission has ensured that almost every American receives the equal and fair treatment from their current and potential employers. Unfortunately, the idea of separation of church and state has allowed religious institutions to dodge both the tax code and governmental regulation, including employment law.
The issue of government regulation on religious institutions has been brought back into to light with the recent case of Michigan teacher Cheryl Perich, who was forced to resign from a Lutheran grade school based on a narcolepsy diagnosis she had received. Perich had to take medical leave in 2004 and was diagnosed and treated for narcolepsy. Her doctors cleared her for work and she attempted to go back to the job she was promised would still be there for her, but instead she was asked to resign and told her disability made her unfit to teach children.
The problem with Perich’s case is that her employer, Hosana-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School (which is now closed) was protected under the “ministerial exception.” This exception prohibits the federal government from interfering in employment matters between religious institutions and their ministerial employees. The exception was created to protect religious institutions from being forced to consider clergy outside of their religious guidelines-for instance, a Catholic church being forced to employ a female priest, which is against their faith.
Perich’s case brings into question the definition of a “ministerial employee.” Since Perich was a teacher of a religious class, was her school allowed to treat her however they wanted, completely disregarding the American Disability Act? It hardly seemed fair.
This isn’t the first employment case against a religious institution, in 1990, the Employment Division v. Smith case determined that unemployed individuals who used peyote-even during a religious ritual-could be denied unemployment benefits based on the standard drug-use laws. Many religious institutions became frantic that this case would set a precedent on government regulation and lobbied to have the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 passed. This act was created to prevent the any future laws that would limit a person’s free exercise of their religion.
While religious institutions have enjoyed great independence and freedom from regulation, Perich’s case may change all that. If she wins, religious institutions may need to more clearly define a “ministerial employee” and protect non-clergy employee’s rights just like every other employer. If you feel you’ve been wrongfully terminated from your job, contact a local San Antonio wrongful termination attorney to learn about your rights.
Jeff Davis is the Owner of the Davis law firm and a highly experienced San Antonio wrongful termination attorney. To find out more information about a San Antonio employment lawyer, please visit www.jeffdavislawfirm.com.