Holy Loophole Saves Catholic School From Bias Suit

MANHATTAN (CN) — After serving as principal for a Roman Catholic elementary school for four years, Joanne Fratello lost her job when she complained that the new pastor falsely accused her of having an affair.

Believing the allegations to be sexist, Fratello filed a lawsuit for gender discrimination against the Archdiocese of New York in 2012.

That same year, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that shielded religious organizations from equal protection actions by beefing up the so-called “ministerial exception.”

The ministerial exception says that ministers cannot bring employment discrimination claims against the religious organization they work for.

That precedent scuttled Fratello’s lawsuit on Friday, as the New York-based Second Circuit Court of Appeals booted her bias claims in what the judges called the first ruling of its kind.

“We conclude that the plaintiff’s claims are barred because she is a minister within the meaning of the exception,” U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Sack wrote for the three-judge panel.

“Although her formal title was not inherently religious, the record reflects that, as part of her job responsibilities, she held herself out as a spiritual leader of the school and performed many religious functions to advance its religious mission,” he added.

“This is a profoundly mistaken ruling,” Fratello’s attorney, Michael Diederich, said in an email. “[I]f a lay principal of the Roman Catholic Church is viewed as a minister, so too must Catholic, Methodist, Hasidic, and radical Islamic private school, and also religious colleges, law schools, medical schools, and also church-affiliated not-for-profit organizations, and ultimately, Hobby-Lobby type private corporations that hire ‘manager-ministers’ to operate a manufacturing plant.  All potential employee of such will, under the logic of this ruling, lose civil law protection, including their own individual religious freedom rights. Ms. Fratello’s bona fide religious belief, supported by canon law, is that she was NOT a minister of the Roman Catholic Church.”

A practicing Catholic with a master’s degree in education, Fratello headed the St. Anthony School between 2007 and 2011.

For the first three years, her supervisor had been the Rev. Monsignor William Reynolds, but her trouble began under his replacement, Father Joseph Deponai, known affectionately as Father Jerry, according to her lawsuit.

“For example, he told plaintiff that she should not drink coffee in her office with the facility manager,” the 17-page complaint stated. “Father Jerry opined that this would ‘cause a scandal’ at his church.”

Although Fratello insisted that there was nothing improper about the coffee klatch between two school managers on school property to discuss school business, she said that she stopped having meetings with male colleagues to avoid controversy.

According to her lawsuit, that did not stop Father Jerry from falsely accusing her of adultery and of swearing at him in a telephone conversation.

“These falsities were invented by Father Jerry, and made out of whole cloth, as a pretext to cover up his sexism, chauvinism, archaic views of women in the workplace, and gender-based animus,” her attorney Brigitte Gulliver wrote in the complaint.

Fratello’s allegations, however, never got off the ground in the wake of Hosanna-Tabor.

U.S. District Judge Cathy Seibel ruled last year that the Archdiocese was shielded from the lawsuit.

Affirming that decision, the Second Circuit emphasized the groundbreaking nature of its ruling.

“This is our first occasion to address the scope of the ministerial exception and apply it to a specific case with the benefit of HosannaTabor,” the 48-page opinion states.

At the heart of the precedent is the struggle of two constitutional values: equal protection and religious liberty.

The Supreme Court resolved that tension in favor of religion, hearkening back to the historical underpinnings of the First Amendment’s creation that reacted against an English monarch who also led the Church of England.

Laying out this history, Judge Sack emphasized that courts are “not well positioned” to determine which employment positions would be considered “ministerial.”

“In the Abrahamic religious traditions, for instance, a stammering Moses was chosen to lead the people, and a scrawny David to slay a giant,” he wrote.

The Archdiocese and St. Anthony’s lawyer Eric Rassbach celebrated the ruling.

“The court saw right through this blatantly anti-Catholic lawsuit, agreeing with the Supreme Court that the church, not the state, should pick religious leaders,” Rassbach said in a statement. “Now St. Anthony’s can go back to giving their students a quality education in the arts, sciences and faith.”

Rassbach is the deputy general counsel at Becket, a Christian legal nonprofit.

Despite the allegations of anti-Catholic animus, the Second Circuit did not comment on the substance of Fratello’s lawsuit, but only on her status as a minister.

“The irony is striking,” the ruling states. “We rely in part on Fratelloʹs supervisorsʹ and faculty officialsʹ 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.”

Diederich says he intends to seek an en banc review of the case from the Second Circuit.

“If this ruling is upheld, in my view we are headed down the slippery slope of theocracy in America, with individual Americans losing rights at the expense of organized religion and its supporters,” he said. “The courts are destroying what the Founding Fathers viewed as vital, namely, a wall separating church and state.”


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