But the court's unanimous decision in a case from Michigan did not specify the distinction between a secular employee, who can take advantage of the government's protection from discrimination and retaliation, and a religious employee, who can't.
It was, nevertheless, the first time the high court has acknowledged the existence of a "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 employees of these institutions.
The case came before the court because the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich., on behalf of employee Cheryl Perich, over her firing, which happened after she complained of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Writing the court's opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said allowing anti-discrimination lawsuits against religious organizations could end up forcing churches to take religious leaders they no longer want.
"Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs," Roberts said. "By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group's right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments."
The court's decision will make it virtually impossible for ministers to take on their employers for being fired for complaining about issues like sexual harassment, said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United."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," Lynn said.
But Douglass Laycock, who argued the case for Hosanna-Tabor, 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.
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."
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 but 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 EEOC, 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 federal appeals court'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 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals 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.
The court's decision was a narrow one, with Roberts refusing to extend the ministerial exception to other types of lawsuits that religious employees might bring against their employers. "We express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers," Roberts 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.