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  • Writer's pictureRyan Cadry

Examining the St. Cecilia Age Discrimination Case: Implications of the Appellate Court's Reversal

In a noteworthy age discrimination case filed by former St. Cecilia School employee Kristen Atkins, the appellate court recently reversed the trial court's summary judgment in favor of the school. The court determined that there were triable issues of material fact as to whether Atkins's job position fell within the scope of the ministerial exception, which prevents courts from intervening in employment disputes involving religious institutions and their ministers.


Background of the Case:


Kristen Atkins had been employed at St. Cecilia School for 40 years in dual roles as an art teacher and an office administrator. Over the course of her career, Atkins never received any job description or job application for her teaching role, and there was no evidence that she was expected to teach religious curriculum or lead religious services. In 2019, she was informed that her position as an office administrator would be eliminated and that her art teaching role would be reduced to part-time. Atkins believed that this decision was based on her age, as a younger employee was hired to replace her in the office administrator role.


Atkins filed an age discrimination lawsuit against St. Cecilia under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The school moved for summary judgment, arguing that the ministerial exception should apply to Atkins's case. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of St. Cecilia, finding that the ministerial exception applied to Atkins's job position.


What is the Ministerial Exception?


Before delving into the implications of the appellate court's ruling in the St. Cecilia discrimination case, it is important to understand what the ministerial exception is and its significance in employment law.


The ministerial exception is a legal doctrine rooted in the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free exercise of religion and prevents the government from interfering in the internal affairs of religious institutions. This exception is based on the principle that religious institutions should have the autonomy to select and control their ministers without government interference.


In the context of employment law, the ministerial exception operates as an affirmative defense that protects religious institutions from certain employment discrimination claims brought by their ministerial employees. This means that if an employee is deemed to be a "minister" within the scope of the exception, they cannot bring claims under federal or state employment discrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), against their religious employer.


Determining who qualifies as a "minister" for the purposes of the ministerial exception can be a complex and fact-specific inquiry. Courts often consider various factors, such as the employee's job title, the substance reflected in their job description, the extent of their religious training, and whether they hold themselves out as a minister.


While the ministerial exception provides significant protection for religious institutions, it's not a blanket exemption that applies to all employees of religious organizations. As demonstrated in the St. Cecilia case, the exception's application depends on a careful examination of the employee's job responsibilities and the nature of their work within the religious institution.


The Appellate Court's Ruling:


On appeal, the appellate court reversed the trial court's judgment, finding that there were triable issues of material fact regarding whether Atkins's job position fell within the scope of the ministerial exception. The court examined factors such as her job title, the substance reflected in her job description, her religious training, and whether she held herself out as a minister.


The court scrutinized the evidence presented by St. Cecilia , which included Atkins's job application and job description for a non-teaching staff position, signed back in 2012 - noting that although these documents indicated that Atkins agreed to conduct herself in accordance with the teachings and mission of the Catholic Church, they were not for a teaching position.


The court also analyzed Atkins's deposition testimony about how she promoted the six tasks of catechesis set forth in the ADLA's Administrative Handbook. The court found that Atkins's description of her role in making sure students behaved in a "Christ-like" manner was ambiguous, as it could suggest that she sought to integrate the Catholic faith into her teaching or simply encouraged her students to lead moral lives in a way consistent with the school's religious mission.


Furthermore, the court considered that Atkins's job position at St. Cecilia was not exclusively that of an art teacher. She also consistently worked as an office administrator, and her claim focused on her wrongful termination from this secular role. Based on these factors, the appellate court concluded that there were triable issues of material fact as to whether Atkins's job position fell within the scope of the ministerial exception and reversed the trial court's decision.


Implications for Other Religious Schools in California:


The appellate court's decision in the Atkins v. St. Cecilia case has significant implications for religious schools and institutions across California. One of the main implications is that religious schools may need to reevaluate their employment practices, particularly for employees with dual roles or responsibilities that blend secular and religious duties. Schools should ensure that job descriptions and expectations are clearly defined and accurately reflect the nature of the work to minimize potential legal exposure in future employment disputes.


Furthermore, the decision serves as a reminder that the ministerial exception is not a blanket defense for all religious institutions. It emphasizes the importance of a thorough, fact-specific inquiry into an employee's job responsibilities and the nature of their work within the institution. This may prompt religious schools to exercise caution when invoking the ministerial exception in employment disputes and encourage a more careful examination of each case's unique circumstances.


Arguments For and Against the Ministerial Exception:


Proponents of the ministerial exception argue that it is essential for preserving the autonomy of religious institutions and their ability to select and control their ministers. They contend that the exception is rooted in the First Amendment's guarantee of the free exercise of religion, which prevents the government from interfering in the internal affairs of religious organizations. By allowing religious institutions to make decisions about their ministers without government intervention, the ministerial exception helps to maintain the separation of church and state.


Critics of the ministerial exception, on the other hand, argue that it can be used to shield religious institutions from liability for employment discrimination, potentially undermining the rights of employees who work for these institutions. They argue that the exception can be overly broad and may be invoked to cover employees who are not truly "ministers" in the traditional sense, thereby denying them the protections afforded by employment discrimination laws.


The Future of the Ministerial Exception in Light of Atkins v. St. Cecilia:


The appellate court's decision in St. Cecilia does not mark the end of the ministerial exception. However, it does provide some important guidance on the scope and application of the exception in the context of religious schools and institutions. The decision emphasizes that the ministerial exception should not be applied as a one-size-fits-all defense and that a careful, fact-specific inquiry into the employee's job responsibilities and the nature of their work within the institution is necessary.


The future of the ministerial exception is likely to be shaped by additional litigation and legal analysis, as courts continue to grapple with the complexities surrounding the intersection of employment discrimination laws and the ministerial exception. It remains to be seen whether the California Supreme Court will uphold the appellate court's decision in St. Cecilia or provide further clarification on the scope of the ministerial exception.


The appellate court's reversal in the St. Cecilia discrimination case highlights the complexities surrounding the application of the ministerial exception and the importance of a fact-specific analysis in determining whether an employee's job position falls within the scope of the exception. As this case proceeds to trial, it serves as a reminder for religious institutions to carefully review their employment practices and ensure that job descriptions and expectations are clearly defined, particularly for employees with dual roles. The ruling also underscores the need for continued legal analysis and clarification regarding the intersection of employment discrimination laws and the ministerial exception.

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