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Supreme Court tackles church-state conflict involving schools

October 5, 2011 | 12:07 pm

Supreme Court struggled with church-state conflict concerning schools The Supreme Court justices struggled Wednesday to resolve a profound church-state conflict concerning whether the nation's civil rights laws protect teachers at religious schools.

It is an issue the high court has not ruled on before, and it left the justices divided and sounding uncertain about whether the Constitution's protection of religious liberty shields church schools from most or all anti-discrimination claims involving their employees.

The Obama administration drew sharp rebukes from religious conservatives and liberals when it entered the case on the side of a teacher who was fired from an evangelical Lutheran school in Michigan. In its brief, the administration argued that the Constitution does not shield "religious employers" from anti-discrimination claims.

That view also drew the ire of several justices.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. pressed Leondra Kruger, an assistant solicitor general, to say whether the Constitution calls for special protection for religious institutions. She replied there was no "categorical" protection for churches or church schools.

"That’s extraordinary," said Justice Antonin Scalia. “So who you pick to teach religion is subject to state control?"

Justice Elena Kagan said she agreed it was "amazing" the administration’s lawyer suggested that the 1st Amendment did not give church schools significant protection from lawsuits.

Kruger said she believed churches should win cases involving ministers but that the law should protect employees from being punished for filing a civil claim. "It's a balancing of interests," she said. In this case, she said, the teacher was fired simply for saying she was going to file a complaint because she might lose her job over frequent absences due to her narcolepsy condition.

At one point, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she agreed on the need to protect those who file complaints. She cited cases of church employees who filed complaints about the sexual abuse of children. "Doesn't society have a right to say that certain conduct is unacceptable?" she said.

In recent decades, most federal appeals courts have adopted a "ministerial exception" to the civil rights laws. That rule shields churches and temples from civil rights claims involving its ministers. In a commonly cited example, a woman could not sue a Catholic parish for violating the sex-discrimination laws for refusing to hire her as a priest.

But it has remained unclear whether the "ministerial exception" extends broadly to cover all church schools or whether it is limited to ministers and the clergy.

The chief justice said the question is complicated because "churches have a different idea over who is a minister." Some believe only priests teach the faith, while others believe that "all adherents" are ministers of the faith.

The case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church vs. EEOC has drawn wide notice among religious and civil rights groups, and the justices gave no strong clue as to how they will decide the question.


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-- David G. Savage in Washington

Photo: The Supreme Court building, where the justices are struggling to resolve a thorny church-state issue, among other things. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press