Sex Discrimination in Schools

Court rules that nun cannot sue school and archdiocese.

Church Law and Tax 1997-01-01

Employment Practices

Key point. The civil courts ordinarily will not interfere with the decisions of religious organizations to dismiss clergy or other church employees who perform ministerial functions.

A New Jersey court ruled that a Catholic school and archdiocese could not be sued on the basis of sex discrimination by a lay principal who was replaced by a nun. The lay principal had been employed by Catholic parochial schools for many years. The archdiocese closed the principal’s school during a reorganization, and opened a new school. The principal was not selected to be principal of the new school. Rather, the archdiocese selected a nun on the ground that her status was important in carrying out the religious mission of the school. The former principal sued the archdiocese, claiming sex discrimination in violation of federal law. A court dismissed the lawsuit, noting that a church has a constitutionally protected right to make employment decisions regarding “ministers” free from civil court review. The court concluded that the principal’s role at the new school was “ministerial”: “The principal is in charge of students’ religious education; she supervises the teachers, plays a significant role in curriculum development, is liaison between the school and the religious community, and is the guiding force behind the school’s spiritual mission. Her functions are more than merely financial or logistic.” The court quoted with approval from another New Jersey decision finding that an “employee’s duties are ministerial when they consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship.” Welter v. Seton Hall University, 608 A.2d 206 (N.J. 1992). The court concluded that “it is well settled … that the free exercise [of religion] clause demands that courts abstain from deciding ministerial church employees’ claims of discrimination,” and that “the position of a principal in a parochial school is a ministerial one and that selecting a nun to be the principal of the new school in this case was an ecclesiastical decision, thus necessitating judicial abstention.” Sabatino v. Saint Aloysius Parish, 672 A.2d 217 (N.J. Super. 1996). [ Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964]

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