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Federal Appeals Court Blocks Catholic School Principal's Bias Suit

A former Roman Catholic elementary school principal was effectively a minister of the church and thus her lawsuit alleging unlawful termination based on gender discrimination and retaliation could not move forward, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, is one of the first by a federal appeals court to interpret the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 decision that recognized a "ministerial exception" for employment-discrimination claims.

In that decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Supreme Court held unanimously that requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister interferes with the internal governance of the church and deprives the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. But the court declined to adopt a rigid definition of which employees within a church qualify as ministers.

The 2nd Circuit case involves Joanne Fratello, who was principal of St. Anthony's School in Nanuet, N.Y., part of the Archdiocese of New York City, from 2007 until 2011, when her contract was not renewed. The archdiocese says in court papers that the reason was "insubordination." Fratello's suit alleged gender bias and retaliation.

A federal district court ruled for the archdiocese based on the ministerial exception—that Fratello could not sue because she was a minister of the church. In its July 14 decision in Fratello v. Archdiocese of New York, the 2nd Circuit court panel agreed.

"We conclude that the ministerial exception bars Fratelloʹs employment‐discrimination claims against the Archdiocese, the church, and the school, all of which are religious groups within the meaning of the ministerial exception," the appellate court said. "Although her formal title—'lay principal'—does not connote a religious role, the record makes clear that she served many religious functions to advance the schoolʹs Roman Catholic mission."

The court said it was not holding that all parochial school principals necessarily qualify for the ministerial exception, and that it was important to look at the employee's circumstances. In Fratello's case, the court said she managed and worked closely with her teachers to carry out the school's religious mission, led daily prayers over the loudspeaker, supervised certain Masses attended by students, and encouraged and supervised teachers' integration of lessons about Catholic saints and religious values in their lessons, among other things.

"In sum, then, we conclude that although Fratelloʹs formal title was not inherently religious, the record makes clear that she held herself out as a spiritual leader of the school and performed many important religious functions to advance its Roman Catholic mission," the court said. "The ministerial exception thus bars her employment‐discrimination claims because she was a minister within the meaning of the exception."

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