Hostile Work Environment And Other Claims Survive Dismissal on Basis of the “Ministerial Exception”

In Stabler v. Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, No. 16 CIV. 9601 (RWS), 2017 WL 3268201 (S.D.N.Y. July 28, 2017), the court denied defendants’ motions to dismiss plaintiff’s claims of (e.g.) age discrimination, disability discrimination, and hostile work environment. Defendants based their motion to dismiss on the “ministerial exception”.

The court summarized the contours of that doctrine:

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and Sch. v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), the Supreme Court recognized the existence of a “ ‘ministerial exception,’ grounded in the First Amendment, that precludes application of [Title VII and other employment discrimination laws] to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.” … The exception “protects more than just ‘ministers’ … and [ ] is not confined to the Christian faith[.]” …

To invoke the exception, a religious institution need not show it acted for a religious reason. “The exception instead ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful—a matter ‘strictly ecclesiastical,’—is the church’s alone.” Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 194-95 (internal citation omitted). This is because, “[a]rmed only with the law as written and the tools of judicial reasoning, courts are ill-equipped to assess whether, and to what extent, an employment dispute between a minister and his or her religious group is premised on religious grounds.” Fratello, 2017 WL 2989706, at *10 (citing Paul Horwitz, Act III of the Ministerial Exception, 106 Nw. U. L. Rev. 973, 979 (2012) (asserting that Hosanna-Tabor “confirmed” the principle that “judges cannot evaluate the kinds of religious questions that come up in employment discrimination cases involving ministerial employees” because they “are simply incompetent to address them”)).
*6 “The ‘ministerial exception’ therefore operates to ensure that, in accordance with the First Amendment, the government is not permitted to interfere or otherwise entangle itself ‘with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.’ ” Moreno, 2016 WL 8711448, at *7 (quoting Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 190). The exception also guarantees that the government cannot “[r]equir[e] a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punish[ ] a church for failing to do so.” Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 188. Such action would “infringe[ ] the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments” while also violating the “Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in ecclesiastical decisions.” Id. at 188-89seeRweyemamu, 520 F.3d at 208 (recognizing that the Free Exercise Clause “protects a church’s right to decide matters of governance and internal organization” while the Establishment Clause “forbids excessive entanglement with religion”) (internal quotations and citations omitted).
As the Second Circuit recently held, “in determining whether the ministerial exception bars an employment-discrimination claim against a religious organization,2 the only question is whether the employee qualifies as a ‘minister’ within the meaning of the exception.”
Applying the law, the court held:
Here, the Plaintiff’s allegations in tne FAC do not provide a clear-cut answer to whether the ministerial exception applies. Plaintiff’s title of “Librarian,” for instance, was secular, which weighs against the application of the ministerial exception. Likewise, the substance reflected in that title, at first glance, appears secular. However, “a title,” though “surely relevant,” is not “by itself” dispositive. Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 193see alsoid. at 202 (Alito, J., concurring) (noting that “a [religious] title is neither necessary nor sufficient”); Rweyemamu, 520 F.3d at 206-07 (noting that the ministerial exception has been applied to a press secretary, Jewish nursing-home staff, and a music director). Indeed, many of the facts alleged by the Plaintiff could indicate that she did act as a minister of the Congregation by furthering its mission. Plaintiff notes that her duties included “facilitating and organizing reading groups and a congregation-wide read-along with relevant lectures,” that she “Chaired the Association of Jewish Libraries 2004 National Convention held in Brooklyn, New York,” and that she was “appointed to represent the Association of Jewish Libraries as a member of an advisory committee for the American Theological Library Association’s planning grant.” Compl. ¶¶ 34-35. In addition, Plaintiff “created a functioning Judaica library in the newly renovated Stettenheim Library,” id., and “initiated and played a major role in planning significant lecture series … within the Congregation over the 17 years of employment,” id. at ¶ 65.
While these facts are not necessarily strong evidence that Plaintiff qualifies as a minister by performing important religious functions on behalf of the Congregation, they may be sufficient in light of this Court’s approach to applying the ministerial exception based on the logic that “the more religious the employer institution is, the less religious the employee’s functions must be to qualify.” Penn v. New York Methodist Hosp., 158 F. Supp. 3d 177, 182 (S.D.N.Y. 2016) (agreeing with Musante v. Notre Dame of Easton Church, No. CIV.A. 301CV2352MRK, 2004 WL 721774, at *6 (D. Conn. Mar. 30, 2004) that “[t]he ministerial exception should be viewed as a sliding scale, where the nature of the employer and the duties of the employee are both considered in determining whether the exception applies”). However, without additional facts as to Plaintiff’s role and the Congregation’s “mission,” the Court cannot definitively conclude that the ministerial exception does or does not apply in this case.
In sum, development of the record is necessary on whether Plaintiff performed “many religious functions to advance the [religious organization’s] mission.”
The court thus denied defendants’ motions to dismiss, and directed the parties to meet and confer with respect to discovery and motion schedule limited to the ministerial defense.


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