(Church-court contacts -- Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, speaks with John Roberts, (R) Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and his wife, Jane Sullivan as Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, (L) and his wife Maureen, and Anthony Kennedy, (Upper L), wait to depart as they leave St. Matthew's Cathedral after attending the Red Mass in Washington October 2, 2011. The Red Mass is celebrated on the first Sunday in October before the Supreme Court opens its annual term/Joshua Roberts)

The United States Supreme Court considered on Wednesday whether the federal government can examine employment practices of religious groups, a case raising important church-state separation issues. The high court appeared to struggle with how to draw the line in such cases so the government can enforce laws such as those prohibiting discrimination and retaliation while still protecting constitutional religious freedom rights.

The justices debated whether to adopt the rule used for decades by appeals courts that the government generally cannot delve into church affairs and religious beliefs in cases involving ministers or other clergy members.

The case pitted the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Michigan, against former teacher Cheryl Perich, who was also a minister. She taught both secular and religious classes. She sought to return to work after taking time off for illness diagnosed as narcolepsy, a sleep disorder. The school refused and fired her after she threatened to sue to get her job back.

Perich then went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency which sued the church for unlawful discrimination and retaliation under the federal disabilities act.