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Supreme Court hears landmark EEOC lawsuit involving church: Part II

Earlier this week, we wrote that the US Supreme Court is hearing arguments in an employment lawsuit that could challenge the sovereignty of religious groups in the United States. The Court will decide whether the EEOC can pursue a lawsuit against a Lutheran school alleging retaliation and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Traditionally, religious groups have been exempt from such lawsuits because of a First Amendment doctrine known as the "ministerial exception." The First Amendment does not allow government to establish a state-favored religion or pass laws that infringe on the freedom to exercise religion.

In past court cases, the ministerial exception has been found to apply to top religious leaders like pastors, priests and rabbis. However, in this case the distinction is less clear. The teacher who was fired did work for a Lutheran church, but she taught secular subjects as well as religion classes.

An assistant solicitor general arguing for the plaintiff told the Supreme Court that the government is basing its argument on First Amendment rights to freedom of association rather than freedom of religion.

The fired teacher later echoed that sentiment. She said: "My situation really had nothing to do with religion."

Several Court justices expressed concern that allowing a discrimination lawsuit in this case might open the door for other government interferences. Justice Stephen Breyer asked how this case would be different from a woman suing the Catholic Church for gender discrimination because women are not allowed to be priests.

The solicitor general answered that the government's interest in this case was to ensure that individuals could come to the government with information about illegal conduct. She added: "The government's interest in preventing retaliation against those who would go to civil authorities with civil wrongdoings is foundational to the rule of law."

The Supreme Court is expected to reach a decision by next June. However the Court Decides, the ruling could have a large impact on the balance between government protection of individual rights and the sovereignty of US religious organizations.

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

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