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Ninth Circuit blocks discrimination suit by Black principal against Catholic school

The three-judge panel unanimously affirmed the lower court's ruling that Chris Orr's role as principal of Christian Brothers High School fell under "ministerial exception," a legal doctrine that protects religious institutions from most employment lawsuits.

(CN) — A Ninth Circuit panel ruled Tuesday that ministerial exception bars a Black principal's discrimination suit against his former employer, a Sacramento Catholic school.

The three-judge panel unanimously affirmed the lower court's ruling that Chris Orr's role as principal of Christian Brothers High School fell under "ministerial exception," a legal doctrine that protects religious institutions from most employment lawsuits.

The first Black principal ever hired by Christian Brothers High School, Orr was fired in the middle of the school year in 2019 — and students, teachers and community members responded with weeks of protests. In a federal lawsuit filed in January 2020, Orr claimed to have been the subject of discrimination and racial harassment and said he had been forced to work in a "hostile work environment."

A federal judge dismissed the suit this past February, finding Orr couldn't sue for discrimination because of ministerial exception. On appeal, his lawyer challenged that notion and argued Orr was not a minister, had not taught religious classes and had no spiritual role at the school beyond occasionally leading prayers at faculty meetings.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed.

"Orr played an important role in the religious education and formation of the students at Christian Brothers," the panel wrote in an unsigned memorandum. "Orr participated in religious services and activities, aiding the school in developing a faith-based community and inculcating faith-based teachings. He had supervisory authority over aspects of religious instruction and programming."

The court cited another Ninth Circuit ruling from 2004 which found ministerial exception “insulates a religious organization’s employment decisions regarding its ministers from judicial scrutiny."

During oral arguments on Nov. 16, the judges seemed to question whether or not a hostile work environment was protected by the religious exemption.

"I think you’d have to say creating a hostile work environment based on race has nothing to do with religion," said Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Sidney Thomas, a Bill Clinton appointee.

But in their ruling, the panel found "the allegations here are so intertwined with the employment decisions that the claims cannot be separated." They did note some claims cannot be dodged by ministerial exception, such as sexual harassment.

Orr said he plans to ask for an en banc rehearing of the case.

"Needless to say, I’m disappointed with the ruling," said Orr. "I don’t believe that is is what the ministerial exception was meant to do. I think that by the courts not creating any boundaries, it allows Catholic schools to abuse what the exception was intended for."

A spokesman for Christian Brothers High School praised the ruling, writing in a statement, "Throughout the course of this legal process, there have been hurtful accusations leveled against the school and its leaders. We reject those accusations in the strongest possible terms."

In his complaint, Orr had claimed that the Christian Brothers president Lorcan Barnes had stymied Orr's efforts to diversify the student body, and argued for lower tuition assistance for minority students. The school disputes that as well.

"During past 16 years, under the leadership of previous president Lorcan Barnes, the diversity of our student body increased by 17% and the school’s tuition assistance grew exponentially," the school said in its statement.

Senior U.S. Judge Jane Restani, a Ronald Reagan appointee sitting by designation from the United States Court of International Trade, and U.S. Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown, also a Clinton appointee, rounded out the panel.

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