Ministerial Exception vs. School Faculty’s Federal Protection
In a conflict that has developed between “fundamental religious freedom” and gender discrimination, sexual double standards, and First Amendment rights, former Catholic school art teacher, Victoria Crisitello, is suing her previous workplace for being “terminated because she was pregnant and unmarried,” according to court records. After a bit of the court case alternating between New Jersey’s trial courts and the appellate court, which ruled in favor of her twice, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has decided to hear the case.
The Church argued that pre-marital sex was an act that violated “fundamental Catholic belief” and that “the school felt it could not overlook” the incident, according to the lawyers of St. Theresa. The church attempts to expand their defense with the recent Supreme Court rulings established last July which “ruled that federal employment discrimination laws do not apply to teachers at church-run schools whose duties include religious instruction” (Rashbaum et al. 2021). This ruling expands the discretion accompanied to religious institutions in regards to the ministerial exception.
Ministerial exception is a standard created within Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Employment Opportunity Division in 2021 to further expand the First Amendments’ Establishment and Free Exercise clause. Although the ministerial exception standard is not accompanied with a rigid standard, according to the opinion from Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, it reinforces that the “Religion Clauses foreclose certain employment-discrimination brought against religious organizations.” The Supreme Court ruled that it was intended to prevent civil courts from adjudicating an employee’s discrimination claims against the religious schools which employed them. (Oyez, 2020)
If the decision to fire Ms. Crisitello was solely being based on pre-marital sex, it provided the argument that the stature being implemented was something only applicable to one pre-conceived binary gender. When this was addressed, the principal of Ms. Crisitello former workplace “acknowledged in depositions that she made no effort to determine if other staff members, including men, were engaged in extramarital sex.” (Tully, 2021) As a result Ms. Crisitello's lawyer, Thomas A. McKinney argues that if the condition for violating pre-marital sex is pregnancy, then it is only applicable to women. Any punishment of violation should be applied universally, but to sue in regards to federal workers’ protection will then have to contest the ministerial exception.
The application of ministerial exception is rather unique in this case as Ms. Crisitello argues that regardless of the punishment discriminating against women, she should not be punished because she is an art teacher and not a religious instructor. Ms. Crisitello’s lawyer is attempting to differentiate from a condition established in the ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey Berru which identifies that part of determining if ministerial exception is applicable will depend partially on what the employee does. As an art teacher, Ms. Crisitello would not be teaching religion but given the environment, expectations of administrative staff, and other remaining aspects, the totality of circumstances associates religious responsibilities or conduct with Ms. Crisitello’s duties as an art teacher. Her natural administrative position within a religious institution would be subjugated to the cultural standards of the institution.
This is addressed in the dissenting opinion of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey Berru, in which Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg address that religious institutions are incorrectly classifying teachers as ministers. As teachers at religious institutions only teach secular subjects, do not receive religious titles or training, and are not required to be catholic, they should not be punished as if they were of the faith. Justice Sotomayor goes further and states that the majority “has no basis in law and strips thousands of school teachers of their legal protections.” The scope of ministerial exception is very flexible and can be exercised to unjustly be applied to stretched scenarios.
In a time where Catholic schools are suffering from a decline in enrollment and there is an increase in unsatisfied parents due to exposure to societal practices which may not align with their cultural beliefs, the fundamental rights of religious institutions are being tested. The president of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers, Tira Schwartz, argues that “The church is supposed to hate the sin, not the sinner…” and the institution should be glad that Ms. Crisitello is not having an abortion.
Bernstein Brittany, New Jersey Supreme Court to Hear the Case of Catholic School Teacher Fired for Pre-Marital Pregnancy, National Review, June 2021, https://www.nationalreview.com/news/new-jersey-supreme-court-to-hear-case-of-catholic-school-teacher-fired-for-pre-marital-pregnancy/
"Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC." Oyez, www.oyez.org/cases/2011/10-553. Accessed 16 Jul. 2021
Liptake Adam, Job Bias Laws Do Not Protect Teachers in Catholic Schools, Supreme Court Rules, New York Times, July 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/08/us/job-bias-catholic-schools-supreme-court.html
Liptak Adam, Religious Groups Given “Exception” to Work Bias Law, New York Times, January 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/12/us/supreme-court-recognizes-religious-exception-to-job-discrimination-laws.html
"Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru." Oyez, www.oyez.org/cases/2019/19-267. Accessed 16 Jul. 2021.
Savage G. David, In L.A. case, Supreme Court rules job discrimination laws don’t protect church-school teachers, Los Angeles Times, July 2020, https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-07-08/court-rules-catholic-schools-are-free-to-fire-teachers-who-sue-over-discrimination
Tully Tracey, Teacher’s Lawsuit to Test Religious Freedom’s Limits, New York Times, June 2021, A15
Vile R. John, Ministerial Exception, Middle Tennessee State University, https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1461/ministerial-exception