Discrimination by Religious Employers

Employers are prohibited from discriminating against its employees based, among other things, on race, gender, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, or familial status. Employers are also prohibited from retaliating against its employees. This means that an employer cannot punish an employee for engaging in legally protected activity. For example, if an employee complains either to a supervisor or to an outside agency (such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) about workplace discrimination and the employee subsequently suffers a negative employment action as a result of making the complaint, the employer has unlawfully retaliated against its employee.

However, the law is filled with exceptions. One of the exceptions to employment discrimination and retaliation is called the “ministerial exception.” This exception was recognized by the United States Supreme Court in 2012 in the Hosanna-Tabor case where the Court found that a fourth grade teacher, who taught mainly non-religious subjects at a religious school, could not sue her employer for retaliation.

The Ministerial Exception in Employment Discrimination Cases

The main reason for the ministerial exception is not to make it more difficult for employees, but rather to not infringe on an employer’s First Amendment rights. In Hosanna-Tabor, the Court explained that requiring a church or a religious group to accept or retain an unwanted minister, would violate the First Amendment which prohibits the government from intruding in such decisions.

On July 14, 2017, the Second Circuit addressed the scope of the ministerial exception for the first time in Fratello v. Archdiocese of New York.

In the Fratello case, Fratello was a principal at St. Anthony’s School in Nanuet, New York located in Rockland County. In 2011, the school did not renew her contract. Although it was not mentioned in detail in the court’s decision, the school terminated Fratello because of insubordination towards the pastor of St. Anthony’s. However, Fratello alleged that she was terminated based on gender discrimination and in retaliation for reporting the alleged discrimination.

Although the court determined that Fratello qualified as a “minister” under the law, Fratello did not have any formal training in religious studies or theology. In fact, all of her academic credentials were in education. However, her role as a principal at St. Anthony’s involved being the school’s catholic leader. As such, she implemented a new prayer system at the school where every morning a student would pray over the loudspeaker system. She also communicated religious messages over the loudspeaker such as reciting the “Our Father” and the ten “Hail Mary” prayers.

To determine whether Fratello qualified as a “minister” under the law thus falling under the ministerial exception, the Second Circuit used four factors established by the Supreme Court in the Hosanna-Tabor case. These factors included: (1) the employee’s formal title, (2) the substance reflected in that title, (3) the use of that title, and, (4) the religious functions performed. However, the Court made it clear that these factors did not create a bright line test.

When applying the factors above in the Fratello case, the court determined that the first factor was the only one that weighed against applying the ministerial exception because Fratello’s formal title was “lay principal.” However, the court ultimately found that the remaining three factors weighed in favor of applying the exception because Fratello was not only St. Anthony’s spiritual leader, but she “performed many important religious functions to advance its Roman Catholic mission.”

In sum, although the court did not allow Fratello to sue the school for employment discrimination and retaliation, not every religious leader may fall under the ministerial exception.

Long Island Employment Lawyers Can Help Fight Employment Discrimination

If you have questions about the ministerial exception or employment discrimination and retaliation, contact the Long Island employment lawyers at Famighetti & Weinick, PLLC. Our phone number is 631-352-0050 and our website is http://linycemployment.com.

Today’s employment law blog was written law student intern, Thalia Olaya.

Contact Information