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U.S. Supreme Court: ministers can’t sue churches for job discrimination

(The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, with Prince Charles of Britain and Justice Stephen Breyer descending on May 3, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

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The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday for the first time in an important church-state separation issue that ministers cannot sue their churches claiming they had been fired in violation of employment discrimination laws.

The justices unanimously overturned a U.S. appeals court ruling that the job of a former teacher and minister at a church school was secular rather than religious and she could pursue her claim that she was improperly fired in violation of federal law.

The case pitted the competing interests of the government enforcing laws such as those prohibiting discrimination and retaliation and of the constitutional protections of religious freedom.

The justices for the first time adopted a rule used for decades by some U.S. appeals courts that the government generally cannot delve into church affairs and religious beliefs in employment cases involving ministers or other clergy members.

The high court accepted what is known as a “ministerial exception” to the employment discrimination laws. It generally bars the federal government from examining employment decisions by religious groups for employees with religious duties, such as ministers.

The case involved the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Michigan, and former teacher Cheryl Perich, who was also a minister. She taught secular and religious classes.

Read the full story here. For a quick legal analysis, see The Historical and Particularist Quality of Hosanna-Tabor by Marc O. DeGirolami, a law professor specialising in law and religion at St. John’s University in New York.

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