The case involves a lawsuit by a Cheryl Perich, a teacher at the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich.
Perich contends she was terminated in retaliation for a complaint about a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act over her narcolepsy. The school and church contend Perich, a fourth-grade teacher who taught secular subjects but was a Lutheran minister, violated church doctrine by threatening to go to civil courts, Education Week reported.
"Here we have a claim of retaliation where she can never get a hearing," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said from the bench, Education Week reported. "She can't get a hearing in a civil court, but she could get a hearing" in a Lutheran tribunal, said Douglas Laycock, a lawyer representing the church and school.
But Leondra B. Kruger, an assistant U.S. solicitor general, told the court, "Congress has not unconstitutionally infringed [the church's] freedom in this case by making it illegal for it to fire a fourth-grade teacher in retaliation for asserting her statutory rights."
Education Week said the government appeared to retreat from a position in its legal briefs that the Supreme Court should not recognize the "ministerial exception" from anti-discrimination laws, recognized by lower federal courts.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Elena Kagan said they were concerned by the government's position that a church's right to discipline a ministerial employee who defied church teaching was grounded in the First Amendment's right of association, not in freedom of religion, the report said.
SCOTUSBLOG.com reported the justices appeared to be struggling to define a "bright line" boundary between church and state.
The justices should rule in the case before recessing for the summer at the end of June.