Are Catholic law school professors really ministers?
A Michigan trial judge will decide that next week in a controversial employment dispute involving Ave Maria School of Law, which is trying to declare law professors as ministers to avoid a wrongful termination suit from proceeding.
In the latest twist to the two-year-old suit filed in state court by a three former professors, Tom Monaghan, the school's founder and financier, filed a motion last month claiming that the law professors are "ministerial." Therefore, he argues, because the school is a religious institution, the administration over these minister-professors is exempt from civil trial court under the "Establishment and Free Exercise of religious clauses of the First Amendment."
Monaghan also claims that the institution is eligible for "ecclesiastical abstention," requiring courts to "abstain from inquiring into, or interfering with, governance of the religious institution."
"We got a curveball thrown into the case, and the law school is shooting itself in the foot," said Deborah Gordon of the Law Offices of Deborah Gordon in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., who is representing the law professors.
Gordon is aghast at the theory that Catholic law school professors are ministers. "Are you people kidding or what," Gordon said, baffled by Monoghan's theory. Gordon thinks this argument could draw the ire of the American Bar Association. "The ABA approved them according to the ABA game plan," she said.
According to Gordon, in Safranek v. Monaghan, three law professors allege that they were fired in retaliation for questioning how Ave Maria was being run. Ecclesiastic matters had nothing to do with their termination, she said.
In court documents, the plaintiffs blasted Monaghan's theory that the school is shielded from liability because they are a religious body, and the professors spiritual guides. "The pending motion takes a position so untenable it is difficult to absorb on one reading. ... In fact ... Monighan testified that AMSL was always intended to be 'independent' of Church governance. And Dean Bernard Dobranski has publicly stated that AMSL is 'not a seminary. We're a law school. ... [W]e never lose sight of the fact that our primary responsibility is to train people to be good lawyers.' "
Dobranski, who is out on medical leave, was unavailable for comment.
Officials at Ave Maria declined comment, citing school policy not to comment on pending litigation. Attorney Donald Miller, of Detroit's Butzel Long, who is representing the school, did not return calls seeking comment.
In court documents, the school defended its position that it is a religious institution, whose teachers are ministerial employees, and therefore immune from court interference into its administrative matters.
It cited canon law, stating that "the formation of an education given in a Catholic school be based upon the principles of Catholic doctrine: teachers are to be outstanding for their correct doctrine and integrity of life." Canon law also dictates that "in the individual Catholic universities, classes should be given which treat in a special way those theological questions which are connected with the disciplines of their faculties," the school stated in court documents.
Ave Maria also cited case law in arguing for immunity from court interference. Among the numerous cases cited in court documents was a 1996 U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decision in McDonough v. the Catholic University of America, in which a plaintiff denied tenure sued the school for sex discrimination and retaliation. The D.C. Circuit dismissed all claims on the basis that the ministerial exception applied, and it had no jurisdiction over the the school's employment decisions. The plaintiff in that case was a nun, whereas the law professor plaintiffs in the Ave Maria case are not clergy members.