Court Dismisses Methodist Chaplain’s Religious Discrimination Claim Against Hospital Under the “Ministerial Exception”

In Penn v. The New York Methodist Hospital, No. 11-CV-9137 (NSR), 2016 WL 270456 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 20, 2016), the court dismissed plaintiff’s Title VII religion-based discrimination claim under the so-called”ministerial exception,” which operates at the intersection of anti-discrimination and First Amendment law.

The ministerial exception, which is based on the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, “bars an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging [the] church’s decision to fire” them.

The court cited the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694, 702 (2012) regarding the ministerial exception. The Supreme Court explained:

Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.

Here, the court’s determination hinged on whether New York Methodist Hospital was a “religious institution” for purposes of the ministerial exception.

Noting the Supreme Court’s observation that “a religious institution for purposes of the ministerial exception is not limited to traditional churches,” the court rejected plaintiff’s argument that the defendant hospital was not a religious institution:

Though NYMH may be primarily a secular institution, with regards to its employment of the Plaintiff, the Hospital was acting as a religious organization. … Plaintiff argues that the Department of Pastoral Care’s mission was to provide “spiritual” care, rather than “religious” care, and therefore the institution was not a religious one, even in its employment of Plaintiff. First, the Court fails to see a meaningful distinction between spiritual and religious.4 Second, as outlined above, though NYMH employs pastors of all faiths, it maintains a connection with the United Methodist Church, and its mission statement emphasizes an “ecumenical program of pastoral care.” Therefore, insofar as Plaintiff is a Methodist and was responsible—at least in part—for preaching the Christian faith, the relationship between Plaintiff and NYMH (specifically, the pastoral care department) was that of a religious employee and a religious institution. This case does not present the Court, nor will the Court venture out to decide, whether this holding would apply to a religious institution’s employment of a minister, pastor, or chaplain of a different faith.

It therefore found “sufficient indicia of religious affiliation to create a First Amendment issue” and hence that plaintiff’s claims were barred by the Free Exercise Clause and Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

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