The U.S. Supreme Court will take on a case to decide whether a Lutheran Elementary School can be sued for possibly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in firing a teacher with narcolepsy or whether the school is exempt under the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
First – a brief summary of some of the facts*:
Cheryl Perich worked at the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School from 1999-2004. The school hires two kinds of teachers – “lay” and “called” teachers. To be a “called” teacher, one must complete University-Level training in Lutheran theology and be declared prepared for ministry by a faculty committee.
In 1999, Perich first worked as a contract teacher teaching kindergarten, but then completed her classwork and became a called teacher in 2000. By 2004, she was teaching third and fourth grade. She taught a full time academic curriculum – including math, language arts, social studies, art, and music. In addition, she taught a religion class four days a week, attended chapel once a week with her class, lead a chapel service twice a year and led her class in prayer daily. In total, activities devoted to religion took up about approximately 45 minutes of the seven hour school day.
In the summer of 2004, Perich became ill and underwent a series of medical tests to determine the cause. In August, still without a definitive diagnosis, the school administrators suggested Perich apply for a disability leave of absence for the 2004-2005 school year, which she did. The school principal assured her she would have a job when she returned to health.
In December 2004, Perich informed the school that her doctor had confirmed a diagnosis of narcolepsy and that she would be able to return to work in two to three months once she was stabilized with medication. Three days later, in an annual congregational “shareholder” meeting, the school board expressed the opinion that it was unlikely that Perich would be physically capable of returning to work that school year or the next. In this meeting, the congregation accepted a “peaceful release agreement” proposed by the school board – meaning that if Perich would agree to resign her call, the congregation would, in exchange, pay her medical insurance premiums through December 2005.
Perich obtained a release from her doctor in February 2005 stating that, stabilized with medication, she would be fully functional and able to work as of Feb 22, 2005 (and therefore no longer eligible for disability coverage). That February, she met with the school board – they presented their peaceful release proposal and in turn, she presented her doctor’s work release note. The school board continued to ask Perich to resign, but she refused this and said she would report to teach on Feb. 22nd.
When she reported to teach on Feb. 22, the school did not have a job for her. On this day, she refused to leave the premises until receiving a letter from the school stating that she had reported to work. Once receiving the letter, she left the premises. The school said that Perich’s conduct on Feb. 22nd was “regrettable.”
After much disagreement between Perich and the school that spring, the congregation voted to rescind Perich’s call on April 10, 2005.
Summary of legal matters:
In May 2005, Perich filled a charge of discrimination and retaliation with the EEOC against the school. The EEOC filed a complaint against Hosanna-Tabor School in 2007 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan alleging one count of retaliation in violation of the ADA. In 2008, this district court granted summary judgement in favor of Hosanna-Tabor, dismissing Perich’s claim because the school fell into the “ministerial exception” to the ADA.
The “ministerial exception” bars most employment-related lawsuits against religious organizations by employees who perform religious functions. What is at debate here is whether this exception applies in this case – where a teacher performs both a full secular curriculum and teaches daily religious classes, including leading students in prayer and worship.
On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit, the federal appeals court ruled that the school was not protected from the ADA suit, despite First Amendment protection as a religious organization, because Perich’s worked most of the time on secular duties. (Click here to read the appeals court decision.)
As described in an ABA Journal news story, “Federal appeals courts are spilt on this issue. They agree that the establishment clause protects religious organizations from employment suits filed by pastors, priests and rabbis, the cert petition says. But the courts are evenly divided over whether this ‘ministerial exception’ also protects churches from suits filed by other employees.”
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court has granted the School’s petition for writ for Certiorari to hear the case and granted various religious organizations leave to file amici curiae briefs. The court will hear the case later this year. (To read the petition for a writ of certiorari, click here)
The case is Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (*Important Note: I tried to give an overview of the facts here based on the Sixth Circuit Appeals Court Decision and the Petition for a writ of certiorari, but every detail of the case is NOT included. For more information on the case, check out the SCOTUS Blog and the ABA Journal News Article. I will post more articles as they come out – as this is breaking news!)
In closing, a few personal thoughts:
As a person with a J.D., this seems like a very fascinating case challenging the boundaries of the First Amendment establishment clause protecting religious organizations’ freedom to choose their religious leaders. I do not know where the boundaries lie or ought to lie within the context of a religious school in which a teacher has full-time secular duties but also holds important religious duties. I believe that smart awesome people may disagree on this matter for many different reasons.
It is important to remember that Perich’s claim of retaliation under the ADA is not the question before the U.S. Supreme Court. What is at question is whether a religious school can be held to the standards of the ADA under these circumstances. (If the U.S. Supreme Court finds that the school can be held accountable under the ADA, than a lower court will take on this case and decide on Perich’s claim of retaliation based on the ADA.)
As a person with narcolepsy, I must admit that it is hard to separate my intellectual understanding of this as a First Amendment question from my emotional feelings of sympathy and frustration for Cheryl Perich’s situation. Without commenting on the religious aspects of this case, I must say that my heart goes out to Cheryl Perich and her friends and family for all that she has been through. Being a part of any long-term legal suit like this can take a large emotional and physical toll on anyone. I wish her my very best for health and happiness despite this legal matter.
Although the circumstances of Perich’s case are unique in that she worked for a religious school – it is certainly not unique that a person with narcolepsy faces conflict with an employer upon disclosing their diagnosis and trying to work with their employer to find proper accommodations.
Narcolepsy, a neurological illness of the sleep/wake cycle, is grossly misunderstood in our society. Some people think that an individual will fall asleep while standing up. Other people think it’s a joke (not even an illness). Although I have given up my privacy to speak out about narcolepsy – many are unable to do this because of the extreme misunderstanding of narcolepsy in our society.
One final note on the general topic of narcolepsy and employment: it is important not to make judgements about a person with narcolepsy without knowing that person’s individual circumstances. Narcolepsy affects people differently – not everyone experiences all of the possible symptoms nor experience these symptoms to the same degree. In addition, the medications currently available for narcolepsy may help some people return to a very full-functioning life while others do not have such success with these treatments. Some people with narcolepsy are unable to work full-time while others do so quite successfully. This is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. Like most things I suppose, it’s best not to judge a book by the cover.
(*Important Note: I tried to give an overview of the facts here, but every detail of the case is NOT included. For more information on the case, check out the SCOTUS Blog and the ABA Journal News Article. I will post more articles as they come out – as this is breaking news!)
Court to decide if teacher can sue church school by the Associated Press (on Bloomberg Businessweek website).