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Fighting for disabled, EEOC takes on churches

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

For several months, the EEOC has been aggressively going to court on behalf of disabled employees. Their successful litigation has paved the way for more disability lawsuits against religious organizations that employ laypersons.

Recent case: Cheryl Perich worked as an elementary school teacher for a Lutheran school that advertised that it brings “God into every subject taught in the classroom.” Indeed, Perich did teach some religious subjects. However, she spent most of her teaching time on secular subjects and used the same textbooks that surrounding public schools did.

Then Perich became suddenly ill at a parish outing and was taken to the hospital. She then went on medical leave while her doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. Other teachers stepped in to handle her classroom.

Finally, after weeks of testing, Perich had a diagnosis: narcolepsy. Her doctors devised a treatment plan that would allow her to return to work without restrictions. When she told the school about the plan, her supervisors suggested she resign. She refused and showed up at work.

When they told her to go home, she demanded a letter to prove she had shown up—and she threatened to sue for disability discrimination.

Perich got the letter, but was also informed that she probably would be fired. In a follow-up letter, the school then terminated her, writing that Perich had “damaged beyond repair” her working relationship with the school by “threatening to take legal action.”

The EEOC sued on her behalf. The school claimed that Perich was a ministerial employee who had been fired for breaching religious doctrine by refusing to resolve her differences internally.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a trial, after concluding Perich wasn’t a ministerial employee, but a lay teacher. (EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Church and School, No. 09-1134, 6th Cir., 2010)

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