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Church employees whose jobs are ministerial in nature cannot file suit under the Family and Medical Leave Act because the ministerial exception applies to all job bias laws, a federal judge has ruled. In her 23-page opinion in Fassl v. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church, U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter rejects the argument that the ministerial exception should not apply to the FMLA. Pratter found that the ministerial exception is grounded in the First Amendment’sFree Exercise Clause and therefore must be read broadly to exclude religious organizations from being required to adhere to any federal employment laws. The ministerial exception, Pratter said, “is philosophical at its core and based on the fundamental principle, established by the Founding Fathers, of separation of church and state.” As a result, Pratter said, there “can be no logical argument that the ‘ministerial exception’ applies to some federal employment laws but not to others.” The ruling dismisses a suit brought by Aletha Fassl who says she was forced to resign from her post as musical director when church officials refused to give her time off to recover from a neurological disorder. Fassl’s lawyer, Donald P. Russo of Bethlehem, Pa., had agreed to drop claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, but argued “the ministerial exception does not apply to the FMLA.” In his brief, Russo noted that regulations issued by the Department of Labor explicitly state that the FMLA applies to both public and private schools. “The FMLA and its implementing regulations were enacted in the 1990s, after a host of ministerial exception cases had already been decided in Title VII cases. Nonetheless, Congress and the Department of Labor were well aware of the applicability of the ministerial exception in Title VII cases, yet they still chose to make private schools (many of which are operated by religious organizations) subject to the FMLA,” Russo wrote. But the church’s lawyers — Sean M. Hart and Scott C. Heckman of Heimbach Spitko & Heckman in Allentown, Pa. — argued that the FMLA “tracks the statutory language” of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and that “federal courts have routinely applied the ministerial exception in FLSA cases.” Pratter agreed, noting that the FMLA “adopts the definition of ‘employee’ provided by the FLSA,” and that “therefore, it is appropriate for this court to look to the FLSA to determine how it has been interpreted for guidance as to the application of the ministerial exception.” The defense lawyers also noted that Russo had stipulated that the ministerial exception barred Fassl’s claim under the ADA in which she alleged that the church’s alleged refusal to grant her a leave of absence was a denial of a “reasonable accommodation.” As a result, they argued, “there is no reason why the ministerial exception would not similarly apply to bar this court’s review of defendant’s church’s alleged decision not to grant plaintiff an FMLA leave of absence.” Pratter found that when a defendant asserts the ministerial exception, it amounts to a challenge to the court’s subject matter jurisdiction. Under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Pratter said, it is the plaintiff who bears the burden of proving that jurisdiction exists. Although the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has never squarely addressed whether the ministerial exception applies to ADA or FMLA claims, Pratter found that the 3rd Circuit has recognized the exception in Title VII cases. In a 1991 decision, Pratter noted, the 3rd Circuit cited with approval the 5th Circuit’s 1972 decision in McClure v. Salvation Army, the case to first recognize the ministerial exception. In McClure, the 5th Circuit held that “the relationship between an organized church and its ministers is its lifeblood,” and that “matters touching this relationship must necessarily be recognized as of prime ecclesiastical concern.” Under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, the McClure court found, “Congress may make no law prohibiting religious organizations free exercise of governing such a ministerial relationship.” Pratter found that although the U.S. Supreme Court has never specifically discussed the ministerial exception, most of the federal appellate courts have embraced it. She also found that since the exception is premised on the First Amendment, it must be applied broadly. “Because the ministerial exception is based upon the clear language of the Free Exercise Clause, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that it applies to all federal employment laws, not just those that have been directly addressed by the courts,” Pratter wrote. Pratter found that Russo’s argument that an FMLA claim is not subject to the ministerial exception fell flat. In one of his own letters, Pratter noted, Russo stated that Fassl had “served in the music ministry for 25 years.” And in an affidavit, Pratter noted, Fassl herself said she needed modifications in her duties so that “she could continue her ministry.” As a result, Pratter concluded that Fassl had not only “failed to carry her burden of offering evidence to establish the court’s jurisdiction … but she and her counsel actually supplied evidence to defeat jurisdiction.” Pratter found that Russo “did not attempt to address, much less distinguish, any of the cases cited by the defendant church that specifically hold that music and choir directors fall within the ministerial exception.” Instead, she said, the only cases cited by Russo in which the ministerial exception did not apply involved allegations of sexual harassment. “In each of these cases, the courts found that only the sexual harassment allegation was actionable because the offending conduct clearly could not be considered part of religious teaching or belief,” Pratter wrote. “However, these courts also specifically held that the respective plaintiffs could not seek any damages resulting from wrongful termination or failure to hire under various employment statutes because allowing a plaintiff to pursue such damages actions would constitute an unconstitutional intrusion into the ministerial relationship with the religious organization,” Pratter wrote. Pratter found that “the upshot” of Russo’s argument “seems to be that because no court has ever directly applied to ministerial exception to the FMLA, Ms. Fassl’s FMLA claim should be permitted to move forward.” That argument was flawed, Pratter found, because there is “no logic or legal argument to distinguish the free exercise clause principle upon which the ‘ministerial exception’ is based with regard to an application of that rule to some laws proscribing employment discrimination but not to others.”

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