WASHINGTON (AP) - Religious workers can't sue for job discrimination, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, saying for the first time that churches - not courts - are the best judges of whether clergy and other religious employees should be fired or hired.
But the high court tempered its decision bolstering the constitutional separation of church and state by refusing to give a detailed description of what constitutes a religious employee, which left an untold number of workers at churches, synagogues and other religious organizations still in limbo over whether government antidiscrimination laws protect them in job bias disputes.
It was, nevertheless, the first time the high court has acknowledged the existence of a so-called "ministerial exception" to anti-discrimination laws - a doctrine developed in lower court rulings. This doctrine says the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion shields churches and their operations from the reach of such protective laws when the issue involves religious employees of these institutions.
"The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important," Chief Justice John Roberts said in a unanimous opinion. "But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission."
Douglass Laycock, who argued the case for a church school that fired a teacher for bringing about an employment discrimination lawsuit against it, called it a "huge win for religious liberty."
"The court has unanimously confirmed the right of churches to select their own ministers and religious leaders," he said.
The court's recognition of the ministerial exception likely ends any chance members of the clergy and church leaders have to sue churches and other religious organizations for job discrimination, experts say. The U.S. Census identified 429,000 Americans as members of the clergy in 2010.
"Clergy who are fired for reasons unrelated to matters of theology - no matter how capricious or venal those reasons may be - have just had the courthouse door slammed in their faces," said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.
But there need to be future court rulings to spell out exactly which other church employees fall under this ruling, like teachers and instructors at religious schools. Some teachers will and some teachers won't, said Rick Garnett, associate dean and professor of law at Notre Dame Law School.
"There are going to be some employee relationships involving religious institutions that are not religious at all, and those are not going to be covered" by the court's ruling, Garnett said. "But there are going to be some that are religious, even if they are not ordained clergy, and they are going to be covered. The way the court put it was that some employees are essentially involved in the religious mission of the institution and those employees are covered."
Judges will still have to decide which religious employees get protection and which ones don't, Garnett said, something that could bring the issue of who gets protection back to the Supreme Court.
In the current case before the court, justices denied government antidiscrimination protection to Cheryl Perich, who complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that her firing was discriminatory under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The commission sued the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich., over her firing.
Perich was promoted from a temporary lay teacher to a "called" teacher in 2000 by a vote of the church's congregation and was 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, then 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 and removed her from the church ministry after she showed up at the school and threatened to sue to get her job back.
Perich complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued the church for violations of the disabilities act.
A federal judge threw out the lawsuit on grounds 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 ministerial exception didn't apply.
The 6th circuit's reasoning was wrong, Roberts said. He said that Perich had been ordained as a minister and the lower court put too much weight on the fact that regular teachers also performed the same religious duties as she did.
The circuit court also placed too much emphasis on the fact that Perich's religious duties only took up 45 minutes of her workday, while secular duties consumed the rest, Roberts said.
"The issue before us ... is not one that can be resolved by a stopwatch," he said.
But since this was the first time the high court has ever considered the "ministerial exception," it would not set hard and fast rules on who can be considered a religious employee of a religious organization, Roberts said.
"We are reluctant ... to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister," he said. "It is enough for us to conclude, in this, our first case involving the ministerial exception, that the exception covers Perich, given all the circumstances of her employment."
The court also refused to extend the ministerial exception to other types of lawsuits that religious employees might bring against their employers, like breach of contract lawsuits.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a concurring opinion that in future cases, he thinks the lower courts should defer to the religious organization on who it thinks "qualifies as its minister" instead of letting a judge decide.
"A religious organization's right to choose its ministers would be hollow ... if secular courts could second-guess the organization's sincere determination that a given employee is a 'minister,'" Thomas said.
Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote a separate opinion, argued that the exception should be tailored for only an employee "who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith."
But "while a purely secular teacher would not qualify for the 'ministerial exception,' the constitutional protection of religious teachers is not somehow diminished when they take on secular functions in addition to their religious ones," Alito said.