On Wednesday, the Supreme Court found itself at the crossroads of two federal protections: freedom from discrimination in the workplace and freedom of religious practice. Cheryl Perich taught secular and religious subjects at a Lutheran school in Michigan before she was diagnosed with narcolepsy. After being deemed medically fit to reenter the workplace, she was fired. At any secular school, this case would inevitably have been decided in her favor under the defense of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
However, because she taught at a Lutheran school, Perich’s case could be subject to the “ministerial exception” clause that is found in other civil rights laws. The exception prohibits government interference in employment issues that arise between a religious institution and its “ministerial employees.” This clause is a slightly ominous reminder of existing inequalities in many religious practices. Dahlia Lithwick, Slate’s Supreme Court correspondent, quotes Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s similar concern: “what bothers [Justice Sotomayor] is the possibility of the ministerial exception being used to deny court scrutiny of ‘a teacher who reports sexual abuse to the government and is fired because of that reporting.'” Justice Sotomayor goes on to reference known cases of sexual exploitation of women and children by certain religious institutions.
While the question that most interested the Supreme Court Wednesday seemed to be what exactly constitutes a minister, this case should draw our attention to the inherent inequality of a clause that protects religious institutions from equal-employment laws. Freedom of religion in the early years of U.S. history offered individuals protection from persecution by the government. Now that freedom of individual religious practice is preserved, and discrimination proven unethical, we need protection of citizens from the discriminatory employment practices of religious institutions.