Yolanda Minagorri claims she was forced out of her job as a principal at a Catholic school in Miami after complaining her supervisor assaulted her.
But the 3rd District Court of Appeal tossed out her whistleblower suit against the Archdiocese of Miami, concluding the First Amendment bars courts from reviewing religious policy and administration.
The balancing act between religious freedom and whistleblower protection was argued Thursday before the Florida Supreme Court justices.
Justice Harry Lee Anstead expressed concern that Minagorri's claim could not be explored without dealing with the religious issues and the rights of the church.
"We have a situation where the secular court is called upon to determine the credibility and legitimacy of the [church's] claims," Anstead said. "The very process of inquiring into that is what the case law talks about as excessive entanglement."
Minagorri's attorney, George T. Reeves, contended his client was effectively fired for a secular purpose: her complaint of abuse by the pastor who oversaw the school. If the court does not weigh in on her side, he said it would place religious organizations on a pedestal above other organizations.
Reeves, a partner at Davis Schnitker Reeves & Browning in Madison, Fla., contended the archdiocese should have to plead the First Amendment as an affirmative defense rather than win an automatic dismissal on grounds of the separation of church and state.
"If everyone agrees she were terminated for a nonreligious reason, there's no First Amendment bar to that," he said.
Justice Peggy Quince posed a similar question to the attorney for the archdiocese, asking, "If you're firing someone for some nonreligious reason, how in the world does that get you into the religious doctrine?"
Robert Glazier, representing the archdiocese, contended the case falls squarely under the church autonomy doctrine and questions about firings would require courts to probe the mind-set of the church.
"For us to have to state the reason, it's a useless enterprise," the Miami solo practitioner said. "We tell you it's a religious reason, what happens then?"
Minagorri served as the principal at St. Kevin Catholic School in Miami. According to court briefs, her job was defined in a church handbook as one that "sets the tone, creates the atmosphere, nourishes the spirit and enables the faith dimensions of the school to flourish."
The archdiocese argued that that definition makes her job religious in nature and removes labor issues from court jurisdiction.
To gauge the parameters of the doctrine, justices peppered the attorneys with a series of hypothetical questions. What if it were a janitor who got fired for retaliation? Or a math teacher? Would their claims be barred because they were suing a religious organization?
Or what if the archdiocese sent a letter to the plaintiff telling her she was fired for complaining and therefore had proof of retaliation? What if the plaintiff reported massive billing fraud and then was fired. Is that OK?
"If the person is a ministerial employee, yes," Glazier said.
Whether the court can step in depends on the job function of the employee, he said. A janitor or math teacher wouldn't propagate the religion and would not qualify as a ministerial employee.
Glazier contended his argument was supported by case law around the country. The 3rd DCA cited a string of decisions when it tossed Minagorri's suit.
Quince said the hypothetical examples demonstrate courts should at least have the authority to look at situations to determine if termination is tied to some religious aspect. If no religious reasons are found, she said the church should be treated like any other employer.
Justice Barbara Pariente expressed similar concerns.
"Just because you raise religious doctrine doesn't mean per se there is religion entanglement," she said. "She said someone assaulted her, and she complained about it, and she was fired. I don't see how the courts lack power to further investigate the allegation."
In addition to filing a suit for retaliation under Florida's Whistleblower Act, Minagorri sued the archdiocese for assault and battery, negligent hiring and retention, and breach of contract. The other claims have been disposed of.
Glazier also contended the whistleblower case was moot because the plaintiff did not file for a stay of the 3rd DCA's mandate.
Justice Raoul Cantero III, who will leave the court in September, did not attend oral arguments.