Is Religion Above the Law?

The religion clause case recently argued before the Supreme Court — Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC — centers on the “ministerial exception,” the doctrine (elaborated over the last 40 years) that exempts religious associations from complying with neutral, generally applicable laws in some, but not all, circumstances.

In 2005 Cheryl Perich, a teacher in the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Evangelical School, returned from an extended sick leave (she had been diagnosed with narcolepsy) to find that her services were no longer wanted. She declined to resign as requested, and after a resolution satisfactory to her was not forthcoming she filed a disability discrimination suit. The church responded by terminating her as a teacher, alleging that its reason was theological, not retaliatory. The Missouri synod, the church explained, requires its adherents to resolve disputes rather than bring suit in civil court; in failing to follow this rule, Perich had transgressed a core Lutheran belief.

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