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“Separation of church and state” is a tiresome phrase that activists have twisted to eject religious expression from the public square—restricting religious liberty.  But sometimes church and state do need separation: When churches select the persons who will carry out its spiritual mission, the state has no business breaking and entering the sanctuary under the guise of “discrimination” or similar employment laws.  In that context, “separation” protects religious liberty.

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken a case with critical implications for churches and other religious organizations (Hosanna Tabor-Lutheran Church and School v. Perich).  Cheryl Perich taught parochial school after being trained in Lutheran theology and “called” by the church congregation as a “commissioned” minister.  She consented to internal dispute resolution procedures applicable to church clergy and accepted tax benefits that only clergy may receive.  Her duties included teaching religion, leading students in daily devotions and prayer, and leading school devotions in rotation with other teachers.  After developing narcolepsy, she took a leave of absence.  The school arranged for another teacher to complete the school year and would have worked with Perich for a smooth transition back to the classroom—but she showed up with a doctor’s note and demanded immediate reinstatement, threatening to sue.  The church congregation rescinded her call and she sued, based on the Americans with Disabilities Act.  

Normally there are two sides to every story and a disgruntled employee like Perich is entitled to her “day in court.”  But when a church selects persons integral to its spiritual mission, the First Amendment says “hands off our hiring.”  The state has no business requiring a church to retain a “ministerial employee” who no longer satisfies the criteria for its ministry.  And when a church operates a religious school, the teachers are its lifeblood, carrying out the school’s spiritual mission.

See Death of a Christian Nation, Chapter 13 – “Behind Church Doors.”

By deborahlawyer

Senior legal counsel for JUSTICE AND FREEDOM FUND ( who writes briefs about religious liberty and free speech; author; speaker; graduate of Westminster Seminary; ventriloquist-songwriter with fun, creative ministry to young kids (

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