Religious Exception Shields Hospital From Bias Suit

MANHATTAN (CN) – Nixing a black chaplain’s lawsuit, the Second Circuit found Wednesday that the “ministerial exception” protects New York Methodist Hospital from religious and racial discrimination claims.

Methodist minister Mark Penn worked as duty chaplain for the hospital’s Department of Pastoral Care between 2004 and 2011.

During that time, Penn complained that the hospital never promoted him to a full-time staff chaplain position, passing him over in favor of a Jewish rabbi and a non-Methodist Protestant. Penn also claimed to have been snubbed because of his race.

The program’s director Peter Poulos, who was named as a defendant, denied discriminating against Penn and justified the chaplain’s non-promotion on other factors. Poulos said that Penn ended services with hymns that excluded certain groups of Christians and insisted upon “full coverage,” ignoring time constraints.

Penn’s litigation failed to launch in federal court here because of a Supreme Court precedent holding that ministers cannot bring employment discrimination claims against the religious organizations that employ them.

The Second Circuit found 2-1 Wednesday that Penn’s case fell squarely within that ministerial exception.

“The Department of Pastoral Care required chaplains, like Mr. Penn, to distribute Bibles, perform religious rituals and organize and conduct religious services, including Easter services and memorial services,” wrote U.S. District Judge Victor Bolden, sitting by designation from the District of Connecticut.

Penn argued that the hospital had shed its Methodist roots to become a secular institution, but the Manhattan-based federal appeals court found that this was not true of the division that employed him.

“While [the hospital] may have shed significant aspects of its religious identity by amending its Certificate of Incorporation, the hospital’s Department of Pastoral Care has retained a critical aspect of that religious identity in order to provide religious services to its patients,” the 30-page majority opinion states. “These services, while not limited to those who are Methodist, are indisputably religious.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Peter Hall joined the majority opinion.

U.S. Circuit Judge Christopher Droney wrote in dissent that his colleagues interpreted the Supreme Court’s rule too broadly.

“The majority holds that a secular hospital with minimal vestiges of its religious lineage may assert the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment to block claims of racial and religious discrimination by a former employee,” Droney wrote. “The majority has set the bar far too low for employers to claim religious‐based immunity from federal anti‐discrimination law.”

Jonathan Trafimow, an attorney for New York Methodist Hospital with the firm Julia Gavrilov, Moritt Hock & Hamroff, did not respond to requests for comment.

Spokesman for the hospital also did not respond, nor did Penn’s Brooklyn-based attorney Vincent Eke‐Nweke.

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