An Oklahoma woman who alleged a Catholic bishop subjected her to "severe and pervasive" discrimination at work because she was a woman is not entitled to protection by federal employment laws, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 13 upheld the use of the "ministerial exception" by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa in a case alleging gender and age discrimination. The 10th Circuit concluded that the plaintiff's duties in this case were not just administrative but also spiritual, therefore granting the church immunity from her suit.
The plaintiff, Monica Skryzypczak, a 50-year-old director of the Department of Religious Formation for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa, sued the diocese in 2008 for alleged gender and age discrimination.
According to her complaint, she was fired in 2007 with no explanation and replaced by younger men. She claimed that during her tenure, she was paid less than men in similar positions with similar duties -- and less than the men she supervised. She also alleged that the bishop made discriminatory comments about women, and that his attitude toward her in particular created a hostile work environment.
"In the setting in which they occurred, the conduct of Defendant's Bishop were so extreme and outrageous at to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and would be considered atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized society," her complaint stated.
The diocese, meanwhile, had relied on the ministerial exception, which preserves a church's right to choose the people who will teach and preach its values, message and doctrines, without interference from employment laws. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa based on the ministerial exception.
At issue in Skrzypczak v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa Inc. was whether or not the plaintiff actually engaged in such teachings, and if she participated in the spiritual mission of the faith.
In its unanimous ruling, the 10th Circuit concluded that she did. " … Appellant's position required her to supervise the Pastoral Studies Institute, whose stated purpose is to 'provide a solid foundation in Catholic theology to educate, nourish, strengthen, and renew the Catholic faith.' " the court wrote in its opinion. "Indeed, the record indicates Appellant taught multiple religious courses at the Institute: a fact which seems particularly damning in this case."
Skryzypczak's lawyer, Daniel Smolen of Tulsa, Okla.'s Smolen, Smolen & Roytman, was unavailable for comment.
John Jarboe of the Jarboe Law firm in Tulsa, Okla., who represented the archdiocese, applauded the 10th Circuit for upholding the church's right to hire and fire as it sees fit, without inference from the government.
"Whether or not there was disparate treatment is immaterial because the courts or the EEOC are without jurisdiction or authority to inquire into (church employment) relationships under the First Amendment," he said. "The establishment clause essentially says that the state does not have any right or authority to define the qualifications or work conditions of a minister of a church. That is strictly a matter of church governance, and it's off limits to the courts or the state."
The 10th Circuit is the latest court to weigh in on the issue of the ministerial exception.
In March, the 6th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals shot shot down the ministerial exception in a case involving a kindergarten teacher who alleged she was improperly fired by a Lutheran school in Michigan after she suddenly became ill and was later diagnosed with narcolepsy. A federal district court had dismissed the teacher's disability discrimination and retaliation claims citing the ministerial exception. But the 6th Circuit reversed, finding that the teacher's role at the school was not religious in nature, and therefore the exception did not apply.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court last year ruled that a fired Catholic school teacher cannot sue for discrimination because many religious school teachers are not protected by state discrimination laws. In a 4-3 decision, the court said religious schools have a constitutional right to hire and fire employees to carry out their missions, and that includes many teachers.