Thursday, January 12, 2012

Who Is a Minister?

I'm still puzzling over the recent Supreme Court decision about Cheryl Perrich, the teacher in the Lutheran school, which you can read about in this article from The Washington Post.  I'm most puzzled that the female teacher in question was considered a minister in her Lutheran school--especially once I found out that the school is part of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod tradition.

Why did this fact make me take notice?  The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod does not ordain women.  More traditional LCMS churches don't even let women read from the Bible in the pulpit.  Yet the school claimed that the teacher was a minister?

True, her training went far further than that experienced by many teachers:  "Perich joined the school as a “lay teacher” in 1999 and then underwent extensive religious training. She became a 'called' teacher, expected to perform her job 'according to the Word of God and the confessional standards of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as drawn from the Sacred Scriptures.'”

I can't shake the feeling that there's more to this story, but I must confess I'm more interested in the Human Resources side of the story.  The teacher left on medical disability leave for over a year; not surprisingly, the school did not hold her job for her, and as I understand the law, the school was not required to do so.  The Post reports:  "When she threatened to sue to get her job back, she was fired for 'insubordination and disruptive behavior.'”  Why was she not simply let go for dereliction of her teaching duty when she didn't return from medical leave?

It's hard for me to see the discrimination here, but like I said, there may be more to the story.  Did she ask for reasonable accommodation?  Did the school take pity on her and try to keep her employed, only to find themselves baffled at a worker threatening a lawsuit?

The courts ruled unanimously, which makes me think that the case was fairly clear-cut in First Amendment terms.  The school called the teacher a minister, the teacher disagreed, the Supreme Court has just decided that she was a church leader.  Will this case have far-reaching implications?

Some of the Justices don't think so:  "Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan wrote separately to make clear that they do not think the term 'minister' is central to courts determining who is covered by the exemption. Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists rarely use the title, they wrote."

So, will later cases revolve around how a minister is different from a chaplain, a pastor, a priest?  Will the Justices need to think about church founders like Martin Luther, who coined the term "the Priesthood of all believers"? 

The newspaper article points to all sorts of inconsistencies, again making me think there's more to the story.  The teacher "claimed a special ministerial housing allowance on her taxes."  And again, I come back to the idea that the LCMS doesn't recognize women as ministers, which makes me wonder what the school is thinking.

It also makes me wonder if the Supreme Court thought about that fact.  If you don't ordain women, can you claim the exemption that the LCMS school claimed?  I would say no, although I would support the school in its claim to have done no wrong, based on what I read in the article.

I wish I could come up with some snazzy conclusion that would tie up all the loose ends in this blog post.  I wish that writing this blog post had helped me clarify all the points which left me confused, but that hasn't happened.  I remain where I was at the beginning, wondering about all the parts of the story that haven't been covered.

No comments: