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News: Religious Organizations: Non-Discrimination Exception

Religious Organizations: Non-Discrimination Exception
Employers generally may not discriminate against employees on the basis of race, religion, sex and national origin. Judicial interpretation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution has created exceptions for religious organizations from these employment non-discrimination requirements in certain situations.

The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution has been interpreted to allow religious organizations the power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine. The Free Exercise Clause also protects the right of church organizations to choose ministers without government restriction.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination against employees on the basis of race, religion, sex, and natural origin. Congress exempted religious employers from the statute's prohibition of religious based discrimination. Thus, a Catholic Church can decide to discriminate in favor of hiring only Catholic employees.

Such exemption, however, did not relieve religious employers from employment discrimination pertaining to other protected classes enumerated in Title VII, such as race, sex or national origin. Congress left to the judiciary the task of deciding now Title VII applies to religious organizations in light of the Free Exercise Clause.

The judiciary's response, first articulated by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 1972 in McClure v. The Salvation Army, was to create a "ministerial exception" which exempted the employment relationship between churches and their ministers from Title VII. McClure has been cited with approval by most courts, and several courts have extended the doctrine to claims by lay employees of religious institutions when they serve a function sufficiently similar to that served by clergy.

Three recent District Court decisions provide insight into how the "ministerial exception" will be handled by the courts in Pennsylvania.

In a 2004 action brought in the Western District of Pennsylvania, a former female chaplain at a private Catholic university brought a Title VII sex discrimination suit against the university and certain officials. See Petruska v. Gannon University.

In Petruska, the court held that the chaplain's role within the Catholic university in implementing its Catholic mission and communicating its message was the functional equivalent of being a minister, despite the fact that she was not and could not be ordained as a priest by the Catholic Church. Hence, the "ministerial exception" applied, and the court did not have jurisdiction over the chaplain's Title VII sex discrimination claims.

However, a different result was obtained in another 2004 case from the Western District. In Patsakis v. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, a lay female employee raised allegations of sex discrimination and a hostile work environment against her employer who then asserted the "ministerial exception" defense.

The court determined that the employee, in her job as registrar and administrative vicar for the diocese of Pittsburgh, performed primarily clerical and administrative duties. The court ruled that the employee did not perform pastoral or ministerial duties and, therefore, that her claims did not fall within Title VII's ministerial exception. The Diocese was ordered to file a response to the employee's claims.

These issues were addressed most recently in a 2005 decision of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In Fassl v. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church, the Court ruled that the ministerial exception applied to the Family and Medical Leave Act claim of the Church's former Director of Music. The court found that the Church's Director of Music was a non-ordained liturgical minister who was an integral part of the pastoral and spiritual mission of the Catholic Church. Thus, the position of Director of Music


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