Earlier this week the ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, along with a coalition of religious liberty organizations. The case involves a schoolteacher who was fired by a church-run Lutheran grade school after taking a leave of absence to treat her narcolepsy. She has since filed suit, alleging that the church violated a federal disability discrimination law by firing her.
The school in question has cited a “ministerial exception” to the Americans with Disabilities Act, under which the lawsuit is being brought. They claim that the federal courts are not allowed to even consider the teacher’s claim because the exception grants religious organizations immunity from all employment discrimination suits brought by employees deemed to be “ministerial.”
In its brief, the ACLU makes the case that the exception should not be broader than needed in order to vindicate the constitutional interests at heart: “Those interests—ensuring the free exercise of religion, and preventing courts from entangling themselves with or interpreting religious doctrine—can be satisfied by applying the ministerial exception only when the otherwise illegal acts are motivated by religious concerns.”
In this case, the teacher taught primarily nonreligious subjects – social studies, science, math, etc. – and her termination seems to have stemmed from reasons unrelated to religious concerns. The brief goes on to argue that “limiting the ministerial exception to conduct motivated by religion would echo the Court’s approach to balancing the right to expressive association against the state’s compelling interest in prohibiting discrimination.”
Whether or not the case goes forward now rests on the Supreme Court, after the court of appeals refused to apply the exemption. While religious institutions are understandably given some leeway in their hiring practices so that they may freely express and practice their faith, it is an entirely different story to grant a free pass for discriminatory decisions that are in no way related to religious doctrine. Hopefully the highest court will agree.