2d Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Roman Catholic School Principal’s Gender Discrimination & Retaliation Claims Under the “Ministerial Exception”

In Fratello v. Archdiocese of New York, St. Anthony’s Shrine Church, and St. Anthony’s School, No. 16-1271, 2017 WL 2989706 (2d Cir. July 14, 2017), the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the Title VII gender discrimination and retaliation claims brought by plaintiff, a former Roman Catholic school principal, under the “ministerial exception”.

The Second Circuit, addressing the exception for the first time since the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), explained:

The ministerial exception bars employment-discrimination claims brought by ministers against the religious groups that employ or formerly employed them. … This doctrine addresses a tension between two core values underlying much of our constitutional doctrine and federal law: equal protection and religious liberty. …

The First Amendment’s religion clauses are also of fundamental importance. Amongst other things, they have since their inception been understood to ensure the separation of church and state. …

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, … the First Amendment has struck the balance for us in favor of religious liberty.

“[W]hether the ministerial exception bars employment-discrimination claims against a religious organization depends entirely on whether the employee qualifies as a ‘minister’ within the meaning of the exception.”

Factors relevant to the inquiry include, but are not limited to:

  1. the plaintiff’s “formal title”;
  2. “the substance reflected in that title”;
  3. the plaintiff’s “own use of that title”; and
  4. whether the plaintiff performed “important religious functions” for the organization.

Applying these factors – including the fourth factor, which the court regarded as the “most important consideration in this case” – the court held that plaintiff was a “minister” and therefore the exception applied.

For example, with respect to that factor, the court explained:

We think the record establishes beyond doubt that, as principal, Fratello “convey[ed]” the School’s Roman Catholic “message and carr[ied] out its mission,” id., insofar as she: (1) consistently managed, evaluated, and worked closely with teachers to execute the School’s religious education mission; (2) led daily prayers for students over the loudspeaker, and other prayers at various ceremonies for faculty and students; (3) supervised and approved the selection of hymns, decorations, and lay persons chosen to recite prayer at annual special Masses; (4) encouraged and supervised teachers’ integration of Catholic saints and religious values in their lessons and classrooms; (5) kept families connected to their students’ religious and spiritual development through the newsletter; and (6) delivered commencement speeches and yearbook messages that were religious in nature.

Not only did Fratello perform all these functions, she was also evaluated on the quality of that performance. Her supervisors and faculty commended her earlier in her tenure for “setting a good example as a religion leader” and “making religious values … the focus of life at the School.” … They also praised her for “foster[ing] a Christian atmosphere,” “giv[ing] priority to a comprehensive religious education program” by “encouraging communal worship,” “ensur[ing] that religion classes [were] taught by knowledgeable and committed Catholics,” and “provid[ing] for religious growth among staff members.” …

Thus, Fratello “performed” several “important religious functions” as the School’s principal. … This fundamental consideration therefore weighs strongly in favor of applying the ministerial exception.

The court concluded by noting the irony of its reliance “in part on Fratello’s supervisors’ and faculty officials’ 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” and that “[i]n [its] inquiry, the nature of her duties trumps her apparent ability to perform them.”

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