DETROIT – Aleeza Adelman teaches Jewish studies at a Jewish school, yet she considers herself a teacher whose subject is religion, not a religious teacher. She's rethinking how to define her job after a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling left her wondering what could happen if she ever needed to defend her right to keep it.
The high court ruled last week that religious workers can't sue for job discrimination, but didn't describe what constitutes a religious employee — putting many people employed by churches, synagogues or other religious organizations in limbo over their rights.
"I think of myself as a teacher who is just like any other teacher," said Adelman, who works at the New Orleans Jewish Day School. "Yes, my topic of teaching happens to be Jewish stuff, but if I were to just think in general about it, am I different from the teacher across the hall who is teaching secular studies?"
The justices denied government antidiscrimination protection to Cheryl Perich, a Detroit-area teacher and commissioned minister 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 Township, Mich., over her firing.
Perich got sick in 2004 and tried to return work from disability leave despite a narcolepsy diagnosis. She was fired after she showed up at the school and threatened to sue to get her job back. A federal judge threw out the lawsuit on grounds that Perich fell under the so-called ministerial exception, which keeps the government from interfering with church affairs. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated her lawsuit, arguing that her primary function was teaching secular subjects so the ministerial exception didn't apply.
The high court disagreed, but didn't set rigid rules on who can be considered a religious worker of a religious organization. That appears to give wide leeway to churches and other religious organizations to decide who qualifies for the exception.
Rita Schwartz, president of Philadelphia-based National Association of Catholic School Teachers, said she's comforted by the fact that the justices didn't set a broad precedent. But she said it leaves employees of religious-based institutions in an unsettled position until or unless they are deemed a ministerial employee.
"I don't mind that title unless it is used to deny my rights as a citizen," said Schwartz, whose association was formed in 1978. "I don't give up my rights at the schoolhouse door. I should not have to do that."
Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote a separate opinion, argued that the ministerial 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."
Schwartz also is concerned about how far the exception can go. She supported maintenance workers in a dispute several years ago in which she said Catholic officials argued that the workers were ministerial employees because "they polished the pews in the chapels and they repaired the crucifixes on the walls."
David Lopez said he sees both sides of the argument as an English instructor at both a Detroit-area Catholic high school and at a community college. At the college, he has the protections of collective bargaining, but at the high school he is an at-will employee with a year-to-year contract.
"I either accept that because I like the environment or I work at a public school where I have better protections," said Lopez, whose day job is at Gabriel Richard High School in suburban Riverview.
"I enjoy teaching students who are actually interested in what I'm trying to teach them," he said. "I lose the protection, but by the same token it's a pleasant environment. It's hard to put a price tag on something like that."
Adelman said she has the highest respect for administrators at the New Orleans Jewish school and believes she would be treated fairly if a problem arose. Still, she'd like to think that she wouldn't lose protections just because of what she teaches.
"If I felt discrimination in the workplace? Of course, I would definitely want to feel I have the right to speak up about any issue, and the fact that I'm a religious educator ... is not going to cause problems along the way," she said.
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