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Elementary School Principal Falls Under “Ministerial Exception”

September 1st, 2017

A Roman Catholic elementary school principal is unable to pursue a retaliation case against the Archdiocese of New York because of “ministerial exception.”

A Roman Catholic elementary school principal is unable to pursue a retaliation case against the Archdiocese of New York because of “ministerial exception.”

The Second District Court of Appeals recently ruled that a Roman Catholic elementary school principal is unable to pursue a sex bias and retaliation case against the Archdiocese of New York because the principal  is barred by a “ministerial exception.”

The Facts of the Case

The case involved St. Anthony’s School, which is located in Nanuet, New York and close to New York City. In 2011, the school decided not to renew the contract of its principal due to alleged “insubordination” of the principal displayed to the pastor of St. Anthony’s parish. The principal, who was a woman, claimed that this case was an example of sex-based discrimination. The archdiocese responded that the decision to fire the woman was protected under the ministerial exception. The church argued that the woman had been given a typical job contract for her position, not because the job was not a secular position, but rather because she had not taken a vow of poverty.

The Law Behind the Case

The principal argued that she had been hired in a lay capacity and that the archdiocese would not be exempt from a discrimination lawsuit due to the “ministerial exception.” This exception prohibits the government as part of the Establishment Clause found in the First Amendment from intervening in the employment of a minister by a church. The ministerial exception was created to protect religious freedom by exempting religious organizations from anti-discrimination laws involving the hiring and termination of employees.

One case known as the Hosanna-Tabor case was particularly influential and presented several standards to determine whether a person’s job was ministerial including the title of the person’s job, the use of the title by the employer and employee, and the religious functions performed in the course of the job. The Fifth Circuit once held that a musician at a church was covered by the ministerial exception on the basis that the pianist served an important role in religious services.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Second District Court Appeals agreed with the United State Supreme Court’s decision in an earlier case that the church rather than the state should select religious leaders. The Supreme Court upheld the ministerial exception in 2012 when Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School decided to fire a teacher who had the work title of “minister” and performed duties of a ministerial capacity. The Second Circuit found that the woman had met the conditions as a minister as she performed religious duties as a principal. As a result of these grounds, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rule in favor of the Archdiocese because courts cannot determine whether ministerial cases constitute discrimination.

The Universal Life Church’s Blog

The extent and application of the ministerial exception is particularly important in deciding the amount of intervention that courts can have in controlling religious organizations. While the separation between school and state has existed since this country’s creation, there are still several cases each month that challenge and further define this relationship. By reading the Universal Life Church’s blog, individuals can remain updated about this field of law.


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