Commentary

With good intentions

People of faith often are the victims of unintended consequences. We try to make the best decisions in a given circumstance, but sometimes our ideals are undercut by their results.

On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States voted 9-0 in a case involving a former teacher at a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) grade school in Redford, Michigan. Cheryl Perpich, the teacher in the lawsuit, argued that the LCMS school had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by terminating her after she was diagnosed with narcolepsy, had taken a disability-related leave of absence, and then returned to teach. She had been urged by school officials to resign. When she did not, she was fired.

Bob Hulteen

A Michigan federal court dismissed Perpich’s claim, citing the ministerial nature of her position and the fact that the church was exempt from anti-discrimination law. A court of appeals, however, disagreed. In its summary, this court said that her “primary duties … [were as] a commissioned minister” at a school where faith was integrated into all subjects, and so dealt with secular education as well as religious education. With contradictory rulings and opposing values, the case was bumped to the U.S. Supreme Court.

What does this mean?

In response to the January 11 decision, LCMS President Matthew Harrison said, “The Court, in upholding the right of churches to select their own ministers without government interference, has confirmed a critical religious liberty in our country. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod places great emphasis on the religious education of its children and the important role of commissioned ministers in promoting our faith, so we are thankful that the Court has confirmed our church’s right to decide who will be serving as ministers in our churches and schools.”

I am persuaded that the LCMS and a couple other Lutheran church bodies have a very long history of considering teachers in their schools to be rostered ministers, and that distinction should be respected.

But, I fear that other churches will increasingly identify more workers as “ordained ministers” in order to exempt them from federal anti-discrimation provisions. At a time when the church should be more visibly supporting the struggles of working people, will it now be viewed as an employer that can be unjust with impunity? Could weakening the ADA be the unintended result?

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