In the first week of its 2011-2012 session, the United States Supreme Court heard a case involving a church and its actions in terminating an employee who took disability leave and was asked to resign as a result. When she refused to resign and threatened to sue, she was terminated.

The teacher, Cheryl Perich, took her cause to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which sided with her and issued a right-to-sue certification. Through the subsequent legal proceedings, her employer, the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church school in Redford, Mich., held that Ms. Perich was a minister because she taught a religion class for the church. Thus she and the church are exempt from the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as other federal laws, church lawyers argued.

Now that the case is before the Supreme Court, the same argument remains: Is she or is she not a minister, and even if she is, shouldn't common-sense laws of the land apply? The justices are divided, and Justice Stephen Breyer says it is "a mess."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked whether religious institutions are immune from lawsuits when they fire a person on the basis of a pretext. “How about a teacher who reports sexual abuse to the government and is fired because of that reporting?” she asked. Doesn’t society have a right to say certain conduct is unacceptable even when it occurs in a religious institution, she asked.

Justice Antonin Scalia seemed firmly on the side of the church, however: “I think your point is that it’s — it’s none of the business of the government to decide what the substantial interest of the church is.” 

Justice Scalia also asked the church’s attorney, Douglas Laycock, to define a minister. Laycock replied: A minister is one whose task it is “to teach the doctrines of the faith.”

Justice Sotomayor then questioned if someone who teaches religion but is not a member of that faith could still be considered a minister.

Answer probably coming in June.