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Teachers Relinquish Rights in Religious Schools

Teachers opt to teach in religious schools for reasons known only to themselves. But I wonder if they fully understand what they give up when they choose to do so. Two cases before the courts illustrate the issue.

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide if teachers in religious schools who also perform religious duties can sue for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Cheryl Perich took a medical leave as a parochial school teacher in Redford, Mich. because she was diagnosed with narcolepsy. When she tried to return to the classroom, she was refused on the grounds that she would be unable to assure the safety of her students. She threatened to sue and was fired for violating the rules of the church ("Washington Wants a Say Over Your Minister," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 5, 2011).

Hosanna-Tabor argues that Perich's suit should be dismissed because of "ministerial exception." Federal law makes it illegal to discriminate based on disability, race, sex and age, but lower courts for the past 40 years have carved out exceptions for churches. For example, in Bishop v. Amos in 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that religious organizations must be "free to select their own leaders, define their own doctrines, resolve their own disputes, and run their own institutions." EEOC's own guidelines have reaffirmed the ministerial exception.

The second case involving the rights of teachers in religious schools is presently on hold in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati. Christa Dias was a former teacher at Holy Family and St. Lawrence Catholic schools in Cincinnati. When she asked her employer about maternity leave options after becoming pregnant by artificial insemination, she was fired. The schools say they did so not because she was unwed but because she violated the terms of her contract as a teacher in a Catholic school. Dias claims a double standard because male teachers who participate in artificial insemination are not fired ("Baby worth legal fight with church," cincinnati.com, Dec. 27, 2011).

I expect the courts in both cases to rule in favor of the churches. Religious schools operate under a set of rules completely different from those of public schools. Teachers who choose to teach there know that going in. Yet I hope that I'm wrong in my prediction because in neither case is the effectiveness of either teacher called into question. In my opinion, that should be the issue.

Supporters of religious schools counter that I don't understand the mission of these schools. Parents want the teachers of their children to be living models of values as well as conveyors of skills and knowledge. But I don't think these supporters appreciate the impact that a ruling in favor of the schools involved will have on the recruitment and retention of the new generation of teachers. There will always be some who will be willing to leave their rights at the threshold of the schoolhouse door, but the vast majority will seek other venues.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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