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Court: Can gov’t get involved in church dispute?

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court is taking its first hard look at how far government may intrude on the relationship between religious organizations and their employees.

The justices are hearing arguments Wednesday in a workplace dispute between a Lutheran school and a fired teacher. The case is being closely watched by religious institutions concerned about their independence, and by civil rights groups looking out for employees.

The issue in the dispute between the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich., and former teacher Cheryl Perich is whether she has the right to sue the school for retaliating against her after she complained of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Many federal courts have recognized a so-called ministerial exception that keeps them from interfering with church affairs. But in this case, a federal appeals court said Perich’s job as a teacher was secular, not religious, so the exception didn’t apply.