As in many cases that touch on religion, Supreme Court justices seemed divided today as they considered the case of a fired Missouri-Synod Lutheran elementary teacher classified as a "commissioned minister." But they seemed to agree that there's no easy, uniform principle that would allow church employees to seek redress in the courts without entangling the courts in questions of religious doctrine.
"This is tough and I'm stuck on this," Justice Steven Breyer said. "I don't see how you can avoid going into religion to some degree. You have to decide if this is really a minister, for example, and what kind of minister. That gets you right involved. Or if you're not going to do that, you're going to go look to see what are their religious tenets? And that gets you right involved. I just can't see a way of getting out of the whole thing."
In June 2004, Cheryl Perich fell ill at a church golf outing and was hospitalized. She took a disability leave of absence and was finally diagnosed with narcolepsy in December, halfway through the next school year. She told the school that she wanted to return to work in February, but the school principal said that a long-term substitute had a contract through the end of the year and that she was concerned about the safety of the students. The principal and school board also began making plans for a "peaceful release proposal." Perich declined the offer and showed up for work when her doctor released her and her medical leave ended. She was sent home and told that she'd likely be fired. When she threatened to sue, the church "rescinded her call."
Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor who represented the church, argued that Perich violated the church's teachings by threatening ...