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Supreme Court hears landmark EEOC lawsuit involving church: Part I

We often write about lawsuits filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of those who were wrongfully fired or faced workplace discrimination. It is common for the EEOC to allege race discrimination, gender discrimination or violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

But because of First Amendment rights to freedom of religion, religious groups have been almost entirely immune from such government regulation regarding hiring and firing practices. However, a case currently being heard by the US Supreme Court could change that.

Earlier this month, the Court agreed to decide whether an EEOC lawsuit against a Lutheran church will be allowed to proceed. The case concerns a parochial school teacher who was fired for threatening to sue the school over a violation of the ADA.

In June of 2004, a teacher at a small Lutheran school in Michigan was diagnosed with narcolepsy. This is a medical condition that causes someone to fall into a sudden, deep sleep at unpredictable times.

The woman sought treatment for her condition and the school was supportive at first. Because the school only had about 80 students, they were able to hold the woman's job open for a semester by combining students into other classes.

However, the school hired a replacement teacher in January of 2005. When the woman tried to return in February, she was told that the job was no longer open. She threatened to sue the school, and the church congregation running the school voted to fire her. It was argued that the threat of a lawsuit was a violation of the church's internal conflict resolution policy.

The EEOC got involved and filed a lawsuit on the woman's behalf. It accused the school of retaliation and a violation of the ADA.

Because religious organizations are traditionally exempt from such lawsuits, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit. However, the EEOC appealed the ruling and the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision.

Now, the case has made it all the way to the US Supreme Court. The Court's decision could have a big impact on whether religious organizations will remain exempt from government oversight of their employment practices. Check back later this week as we continue our discussion.

Source: ABC News, "Supreme Court Justices Find Government Line in Church-State Case 'Amazing,'" Warren Richey, Oct. 9, 2011

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