Illustration by Nancy Ohanian

Illustration by Nancy Ohanian Credit: Tribune Media Services

The current U.S. Supreme Court doesn't issue too many unanimous, sweeping decisions on the First Amendment, so Wednesday's ruling on a key separation of church and state issue was as surprising as it was important.

The case involved Cheryl Perich, a teacher who sued a Lutheran church school in Michigan for employment discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Perich mostly taught secular subjects, but for about 45 minutes a day she taught religious classes and attended chapel with her class. The church considered her a trained minister.

After taking a leave to deal with a sleep disorder, Perich sought to return to work. When the school refused, she threatened to sue. The church fired her for not seeking to resolve the dispute internally. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took on the teacher's case.

All nine justices agreed that she had no claim to pursue because the hiring and firing of those involved with the faith teachings of a religious organization were none of the government's business. In its ruling, the court recognized a "ministerial exception" to state and federal discrimination law.

The court, however, did not set guidelines to determine just who is a religious employee, preferring to let the issue be refined in subsequent cases. Such caution is wise. There can't be such a broad ban that anyone who works for a religious institution is prevented from suing it for discrimination.

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