Court Will Not Resolve School Employment Dispute

Former principal had challenged her dismissal from Catholic school.

Church Law and Tax1995-11-01Recent Developments


Key point: A church-operated school’s employment decisions with regard to faculty and administrators who teach religion, whether directly or indirectly, are protected from civil court review by the first amendment.

A New Jersey court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to resolve a lawsuit brought by a former lay principal at a Catholic school challenging her dismissal. A number of Catholic schools reorganized into a unified school. A lay principal at one of the schools applied for the position of principal of the unified school. Her application was not accepted. Instead, a nun with extensive educational experience was selected. The former principal sued the school and archdiocese, claiming among other things that her contract of employment had been breached. A state appeals court disagreed. It began its decision by noting that “employment decisions by religious bodies regarding lay teachers in church-run schools, whose duties include teaching religion directly or indirectly, are protected by the free exercise [of religion] clause” of the first amendment from claims of discrimination or breach of contract. Similarly, it noted that “our courts should refrain from addressing disputes involving employees who perform essentially ministerial duties for a parochial school.” It quoted with approval from an earlier federal appeals court ruling: “As a general rule, if the employee’s primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship, he or she should be considered ‘clergy,'” and employment decisions regarding such a person are beyond the jurisdiction of the civil courts. Any other result would impermissibly entangle the courts in religious governance. The court also rejected the former principal’s claim that the school breached her contract of employment. It simply pointed out that the former principal had been hired for 1-year terms, and her contract was not renewed. “Thus, no employment existed from which [she] could be dismissed or terminated. [She] simply was not rehired.” Sabatino v. Saint Aloysius Parish, 654 A.2d 1033 (N.J. Super. 1994). Accord Gabriel v. Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, 640 N.E.2d 681 (Ill. App. 4 Dist. 1994).

See Also: Religious Educational Institutions | Decisions of State and Lower Federal Courts | Discharge and Discipline of Teachers

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