U.S. Court of Appeals Issues a Key “Ministerial Exception” Ruling

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided a case that holds significant implications for the application of the “ministerial exception.”  A copy of the three-member panel’s unanimous decision in Fratello v. Archdiocese of New York can be found, here.

To refresh your memory, the ministerial exception is a legal doctrine grounded in both the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment that precludes employment-discrimination claims by “ministers” against the religious entities that employ, or formerly employed them.  In a landmark 2012 ruling (Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC), a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the ministerial exception, but stopped short of providing a full set of criteria governing the determination of who may, and may not be regarded as a “minister” for purposes of applying the doctrine.  Such determinations were to be left for the lower courts to judge on a case-by-case basis.  For that reason, last week’s ruling holds considerable importance.

The current case involves an educator named Joanne Fratello who was formerly employed as the “Lay Principal” of a Catholic elementary school located in Nanuet, New York.  After serving in her position from 2007 to 2011, the school declined to renew her contract.  Ms. Fratello then filed an employment discrimination claim, alleging that she had been terminated on the basis of gender discrimination and retaliation for reporting the alleged discrimination.  The school, together with the church with which it is affiliated and the Archdiocese of New York, in which both are located, responded by invoking the ministerial exception.  The district court granted defendents’ motion for summary judgment, whereupon Ms. Fratello submitted an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

In essence, here’s what that Court of Appeals had to say:

The ministerial exception points to a tension between two core constitutional doctrines: equal protection and religious liberty.  The Court writes:

“In the context of employment disputes, these two core values sometimes conflict, and a balance must be struck. Hosanna‐Tabor instructs that where a defendant is able to establish that the ministerial exception applies, see Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 195 n.4 (explaining that the ministerial exception is an affirmative defense), the ‘First Amendment has struck the balance for us’ in favor of religious liberty…”

In other words, IF a church, school, or other religious employer can persuade a court that an employee is a “minister” (for purposes of applying the ministerial exception), the court would most likely be bound to side with the employer and bar claims brought by such an employee.  The pivotal question is thus: What criteria designate an employee as a “minister” for purposes of applying the ministerial exception?

Ms. Fratello argued that her designation by the school as “Lay Principal,” should serve to settle the matter without any further consideration.  The Court disagreed, noting that other courts have held that the ministerial exception applied to a music director, a nursing home staff member, and a press secretary.

However, just as the Court found that a title, alone, should not automatically preclude the designation of “minister” for purposes of applying the ministerial exception, it was quick to add that a religious employer: “…cannot insulate itself from…liability by bestowing hollow ministerial titles upon many or all of its employees.”

The Court thus determined that while titles should be considered, they ought not be dispositive.  In the Court’s view, the actual functions performed by an employee should be granted greater weight when making a determination of who is a minister.  Indeed, the Court writes:

“In our view, the most important consideration in this case is whether, and to what extent, the plaintiff ‘performed’ ‘important religious functions . . . for [her religious organization].’ Hosanna‐Tabor, 565 U.S. at 192.”

The Court then enumerated a series of functions performed by Ms. Fratello that inclined the judges to regard her as a minister for purposes of applying the ministerial exception.  These included the findings that Ms. Fratello:

  • consistently managed, evaluated, and worked closely with teachers to execute the Schoolʹs religious education mission;
  • led daily prayers for students over the loudspeaker, and other prayers at various ceremonies for faculty and students;
  • supervised and approved the selection of hymns, decorations, and lay persons chosen to recite prayer at annual special Masses;
  • encouraged and supervised teachersʹ integration of Catholic saints and religious values in their lessons and classrooms;
  • kept families connected to their studentsʹ religious and spiritual development through the newsletter; and,
  • delivered commencement speeches and yearbook messages that were religious in nature.

Moreover, the Court noted that Ms. Fratello was evaluated, in part, on the basis of her ability to perform the above functions.  (The school’s ability to produce written records of such evaluations proved to be of importance, as was the introduction of an Archdiocesan Administrative Manual for schools, in which certain expectations relative to religious leadership were made explicit.)

The final paragraph of the Court’s analysis bears quoting in its entirety:

“The irony is striking. We rely in part on Fratelloʹs supervisorsʹ and faculty officialsʹ prior praise of her performance of her religious responsibilities as proof that she could be fired for the wrong reason or without any reason at all. In our inquiry, the nature of her duties  trumps her apparent ability to perform them.  This case thus lies at the center of the tension between an employerʹs right to freedom of religion and an employeeʹs right not to be unlawfully discriminated against. The ministerial exception, as we understand it to be interpreted by the Supreme Court, resolves that tension in this case against Fratello and in favor of the Archdiocese, the Church, and the School. Indeed, the Supreme Court has told us that, because, as we conclude, she is a minister within the meaning of the exception, the ‘First Amendment has struck the balance for us.’”

Readers having the time and the interest are encouraged to read the entire opinion.  It’s written without much “legalese,” and is interesting, throughout.  The ruling is reported by Education Week’s School Law blog, here.

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