St. Anthony's School in Nanuet, NY
St. Anthony’s School in Nanuet, NY (Google)

The ex-principal of a Catholic elementary school had not held a religious position with the school but is nonetheless barred by the First Amendment’s ministerial exception from bringing a discrimination suit against her former employer, a federal appeals court ruled.

The case was the first time the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has weighed in on the ministerial exception since the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous 2012 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171, in which the court ruled that a teacher at a religious school in Michigan could not bring suit against her employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act for firing her after she became sick.

In the New York case, plaintiff Joanne Fratello worked for a Roman Catholic school in Rockland County from 2007 to 2011, at which time the school declined to renew her contract. She claims gender discrimination was the basis for her termination, as well as retaliation for filing a Title VII complaint.

Writing for the court, Judge Robert Sack said Fratello, while not a member of the clergy, held herself out as a spiritual leader at the school, undertaking numerous religious functions such as implementing a new prayer system.

Fratello’s case, Sack said, lies “at the center of the tension between an employer’s right to freedom of religion and an employee’s right not to be unlawfully discriminated against,” and the ministerial exception resolves this tension against Fratello.

Judge Raymond Lohier Jr. and Southern District Judge Gregory Woods, sitting on the panel by designation, joined Sack on the decision.

Eric Rassbach of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty appeared for the school and the Archdiocese of New York. The defendants’ legal team also included James McCabe and Roderick Cassidy of the archdiocese’s legal affairs office; and Rivkin Radler attorneys Kenneth Novikoff and Barry Levy.

“The court saw right through this blatantly anti-Catholic lawsuit, agreeing with the Supreme Court that the church, not the state, should pick religious leaders,” Rassbach said in a release.

Michael Diederich Jr., a Rockland County solo practitioner who represented Fratello, said that he intends to file a petition for the Second Circuit to hear the case en banc.

Diederich said he sees the court’s “pernicious” decision as having the potential to erode civil protections for lay employees of organizations that are religiously affiliated.

“I think it’s a very dangerous case for American democracy and individual First Amendment rights, including religious rights,” he said.