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Court Bars Catholic School Principal's Job Lawsuit

Connecticut's highest court has barred a lawsuit by a principal dismissed from a Roman Catholic elementary school on the basis that the suit would require judicial interference in the church's selection of its religious leaders.

The Connecticut Supreme Court said the principal's state-law claims were barred by the "ministerial exception" to employment suits. Under that doctrine, initially developed with regard to federal job-discrimination laws, courts are precluded under the First Amendment's religion clauses from resolving employment disputes between churches and their religious leaders.

The case was brought by Patricia Dayner, who was the principal of St. Hedwig's Catholic School in the Archdiocese of Hartford for some 17 years before she clashed with the pastor of her church in 2004 and 2005. The pastor said she needed improvement in her leadership qualities, but Dayner believed the conflict stemmed from an incident in which she refused the pastor's request to refer a female student to the state Department of Children and Families. Dayner believed the pastor was retaliating against the student for making a complaint, court papers say.

Dayner's contract as principal was not renewed, and a promised opportunity to return to classroom teaching never materialized. She sued the archdiocese in state court, on state-law claims including breach of implied contract, breach of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and termination of employment in violation of public policy, based on alleged retaliation for Dayner's refusal to refer a student to the state.

A state trial court denied the defendants' motion to dismiss, but in its unanimous July 25 decision in Dayner v. Archdiocese of Hartford, the state high court held that the ministerial exception required the dismissal of the suit.

"It is undisputed for purposes of the present appeal that the plaintiff's duties as a Catholic school principal render her a ministerial employee," the court said. That didn't end the inquiry, though, the court said, because the federal courts of appeals are split on whether all employment claims by ministerial employees require dismissal under the ministerial exception, or whether certain claims that don't require courts to intervene into sensitive religious matters of the church employer may go forward.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City and which covers Connecticut, has adopted the latter approach, meaning courts may consider the employment claims of ministerial employees in some circumstances.

Nevertheless, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that all of Dayner's state-law claims are barred by the ministerial exception. Her suit would require the state courts to police the archdiocese's compliance with its own interal employment procedures or otherwise judge the employment decisions of the church.

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will tackle its first case involving the scope of the ministerial exception. In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Case No. 10-553), the justices will weigh whether a teacher at a religious school can fall under the ministerial exception. I wrote about that case here.

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