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Religious schools don’t have a free pass to ignore a key federal employment law based on a “ministerial exception.” At least not in the 6th Circuit. So ruled the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday in a case of first impression for that court. Kindergarten teacher Cheryl Perich contends that she was unlawfully fired by the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran School in Redford, Mich., after she suddenly became ill — she was later diagnosed with narcolepsy — and went on disability leave. She sued her former employer for alleged disability discrimination. A federal district court dismissed her Americans with Disabilities Act discrimination and retaliation claims on the grounds that the ADA’s “ministerial exception” gives religious institutions certain rights to control employment matters without interference from the courts and that Perich fell within that exception. The 6th Circuit disagreed. As Judge Eric Clay explained in writing for the panel, Perich’s role at the school was not religious in nature, and therefore the ministerial exception did not apply. “[W]hen courts have found that teachers classify as ministerial employees for purposes of the exception, those teachers have generally taught primarily religious subjects or had a central role in the spiritual or pastoral mission of the church,” Clay wrote in the March 9 opinion. In comparison, Clay noted that Perich spent about six hours and 15 minutes of her seven-hour day teaching secular subjects. “The fact that Perich participated in and led some religious activities throughout the day does not make her primary function religious,” Clay wrote. That’s just what the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which argued on Perich’s side in the appeals court, said. “The court got this right on the law, that this ministerial exemption should be narrowly construed,” said Carolyn Wheeler, assistant general counsel to the EEOC who supervised briefing on the case. Wheeler noted that religious institutions are permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion. For example, a Roman Catholic church has the right to hire only male priests. But when schools try to use that exemption, they have to prove that the instructor in question has ministerial duties, which, Wheeler said, is often difficult to prove. According to court documents, Perich had taught kindergarten for five years at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran School before she went on disability leave. Her doctors diagnosed her with narcolepsy, and at some point thereafter she sought to return to work. In her lawsuit, Perich alleges that, although she provided a doctor’s certification supporting her readiness to return to work, the school repeatedly asked her to resign and eventually denied her a teaching position. When she challenged that denial, she alleges, she was fired for insubordination and disruptive behavior. Deano Ware, a solo practitioner in Detroit who is representing the school, was unavailable for comment.

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