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Religious Discrimination Exceptions

Federal and state laws protect employees from discrimination and prohibit employers from making employment decisions based on factors such as race, gender, religion, national origin, disability, and age. These laws also protect employees against retaliation. In other words, employers are prohibited from subjecting employees to negative employment decisions, such as termination or demotion, because an employee engages in “protected activity” such as filing a discrimination charge with a federal or state agency.  Sometimes, discrimination laws clash with Constitutional concerns.  Today’s Long Island employment law blog discusses the ministerial exception to religious discrimination claims.

In 2012, however, in Hosanna‐Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., the U.S. Supreme Court adopted the ministerial exception doctrine. This exception is an affirmative defense that an employer can use to defend employment discrimination lawsuits. The Supreme Court has recognized that while there isn’t a strict formula to decide when the exception applies, it is usually the role performed by the employee and the religious activities of the employer that determines whether the exception applies.

On March 7, 2018, New York’s federal circuit court in Penn v. New York Methodist Hospital, decided a case based on the application of the ministerial exception doctrine.

In Penn, Marlon Penn, an African American Methodist, worked as the duty Chaplain for New York Methodist Hospital (the “Hospital”) in a primarily ministerial role. For example, “he coordinated the distribution of Bibles, conducted an in-hospital memorial service for an employee who dies, and ‘maintained . . . active, on-going pastoral care to staff.’” Penn remained in this position from 2004-2011.

Penn’s lawsuit stems from several requests that were ignored by the Hospital, asking them to promote him to full-time Staff Chaplain. Instead of hiring Penn, the hospital, on two occasions, passed him over in favor of a Jewish rabbi and a non-Methodist. In 2010, Penn filed an administrative complaint with the federal EEOC and New York Division of Human Rights alleging that the hospital failed to promote him because of his race and religion.

In response to Penn’s complaint, the Hospital provided several purportedly legitimate reasons for failing to promote him. The Hospital argued that Penn ended a service with a hymn that was only familiar to certain types of Christians, spent too much time counseling patients, was insensitive to non-Christian patients, and did not attend meetings. Also, Peter Poulos, the Director of the Department of Pastoral Care, argued that the second employee hired as a full-time Chaplain was a stronger candidate with better pastoral counseling skills than Penn.

In determining whether or not to apply the ministerial exception to Penn’s case, the Second Circuit noted that although there were some organizational and operational changes showing that the Hospital promoted its secular nature, there was nonetheless ample evidence indicating that the hospital remained significantly connected to its religious history. For example, the hospital has kept the word “Methodist” in its name, the Hospital’s by-laws require the hospital to appoint a president “with the advice and counsel of the Bishop of the New York Area of the United Methodist Church,” the by-laws require that every board meeting begin with a prayer, at the employee orientation Chaplain Polous tells employees that “patients are human beings who are created in the image of God,” and the Hospital provides religious services through its pastoral care department.

The Second Circuit’s decision then reiterated Hosanna-Tabor’s primary reason for implementing the ministerial exception doctrine which was to avoid infringing on a religious institution’s First Amendment rights. In other words, requiring a church or a religious group to accept or retain an unwanted minister would violate the First Amendment which prohibits government intrusion in these decisions. Thus, the court stated that because a jury hearing this case would have to make determinations on how a Chaplain should conduct religious services or provide spiritual support, it would dive deeply into protected First Amendment concerns.

Thus, due to the religious nature of Penn’s position at the hospital and the fact that the hospital’s Department of Pastoral Care was indeed a “religious group,” the Second Circuit agreed with the lower court’s decision to apply the ministerial exception and ruled in favor of the hospital.

Famighetti & Weinick PLLC are employment lawyers in New York. If you have questions about employment discrimination or other employment matters, call one of our Long Island employment lawyers at 631-352-0050.  We are also available on the internet at or on Facebook.

Today’s employment law blog was written by Hofstra Law School student and employment law intern, Thalia Olaya.

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