Court: Can gov't get involved in church dispute?

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The Supreme Count on Tuesday seemed deeply divided on how far the government can intrude inside the employment practices of churches and religious groups, a decision being closely watched by religious institutions concerned about their independence and by civil rights groups looking out for their employees.

The issue in the dispute between the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich., and former teacher Cheryl Perich is whether a government agency has the right to sue the school on her behalf for firing her after she complained of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Perich was promoted from a temporary lay teacher to a "called" teacher in 2000 at the Redford, Mich., school by a vote of the church's congregation and hired as a commissioned minister. She taught secular classes, as well as a religious class four days a week. She also occasionally led chapel service.

She got sick in 2004 but tried to return to work from disability leave despite being diagnosed with narcolepsy. The school said she couldn't return because they had hired a substitute for that year. They fired her after she showed up and threatened to sue to get her job back.

Perich complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued the church for violations under the disabilities act.

A federal judge threw out the lawsuit, saying that Perich fell under the ADA's ministerial exception, which keeps the government from interfering with church affairs. But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated her lawsuit, saying Perich's "primary function was teaching secular subjects" so the exception didn't apply.

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