“Ministerial Exception” Upheld by the Second Circuit

The Second Circuit recently ruled in Fratello v. Archdiocese of New York, et. al. that ministers are barred from bringing employment discrimination claims against religious schools and organizations under the ministerial exception.

This was the first time the Second Circuit addressed the exception since the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC. The implications are important with regard to future employment discrimination claims and educational institutions.

Background

The phrase “separation of church and state” is not located in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Rather, the expression originated from Thomas Jefferson and was reiterated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Everson v. Board of Education. In that case, the court stated, “the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a “wall of separation between Church and State.”

Twenty-five years later, in Lemon v. Kurtzman, the U.S. Supreme Court court defined this separation by establishing the Lemon Test to determine whether a law violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. To date, every holding after Lemon confirmed that the U.S. Constitution created a separation of church and state. The phrase simply means that the government cannot be involved in religious affairs, set up a church, or aid or prefer one religion over another or prefer religion over non-religion.

In 2012, the Hosanna-Tabor decision shielded religious organizations from equal protection claims by applying the ministerial exception. This exception essentially declares that ministers are not permitted to bring employment discrimination claims against the religious institutions that they work for or previously worked for. Hosanna-Tabor established the precedent on this issue. Recently, this precedent prevented a plaintiff, Joanne Fratello, from pursuing her gender discrimination claim against a religious school. Fratello appealed the lower court’s dismissal to the Second Circuit.

Facts of the Second Circuit’s Decision

On July 14, 2017, the Second Circuit rendered its decision in Fratello affirming the lower court’s decision to dismiss her case. Fratello was terminated by a Roman Catholic elementary school where she was the Principal for four years. Fratello was terminated when defendant failed to renew her contact.

The basis for her termination was her allegation that the School’s new Pastor falsely accused her of having an affair. This accusation followed an incident in which the Pastor told Fratello that she should not drink coffee with the facility manager while in her office. Fratello complained to the Pastor and others in defendant’s hierarchy. Following her complaints, the Pastor made a false accusation that Fratello used profane language during a telephone conversation with him.

Fratello believed that the Pastor’s allegations were sexist and that her termination was unlawful. Consequently, Fratello commenced a gender discrimination lawsuit against the Archdiocese in 2012. Fratello alleged in her complaint that defendant’s failure to renew her contract stemmed from the Pastor’s false allegations, as a pretext to cover up his discriminatory animus. Fratello also asserted in her complaint that the Principal position provides no guidance or instruction to religion teachers in connection with the Catholic faith.

At the center of the Hosanna-Tabor precedent, is the conflict between equal protection and religious liberty. The disagreement was resolved by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor in favor of religion, citing back to the history of the First Amendment. Relying on this precedent, the Second Circuit concluded that Fratello’s claims are barred because she is a minister within the meaning of the ministerial exception. The court concluded that although her formal title was not religious, the important elements were that she held herself out as a spiritual leader to the school and performed various religious functions to advance the school’s religious mission.

Implications

This important ruling establishes that employment discrimination suits can be dismissed if the religious organization can prove that the plaintiff falls within the ministerial exception. Even if the plaintiff’s legitimate religious belief is that he/she was not a minister, courts following Hossana-Tabor and Fratello will likely dismiss the case so long as the ministerial exception elements are satisfied.

Jules Halpern Associates LLC

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