Is a Part-Time Art Teacher in a Religious School a Minister? California Court of Appeal Will Let a Jury Decide the Issue After Reinstating Age-Discrimination Case Against Catholic School

Posted by Kent F. LowryJun 05, 2023

Religious employers have at their disposal some defenses that non-religious employers do not have in employment discrimination cases. One of the unique defenses—the ministerial exception—was at issue in a recently-decided case against a school located within the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

The plaintiff worked at St. Cecilia, a Catholic elementary school, for 40 years, beginning in 1978 as a secretary/office administrator. In 1999, she took on additional duties as a part-time art teacher. She was terminated by a new principal in 2018, who decided that the school could no longer afford an art teacher. Further, the new principal did not invite the plaintiff to return in any capacity for the next school year, instead assigning the plaintiff's administrative office duties to a younger employee who had been hired a year earlier. The plaintiff sued for age discrimination under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination, harassment, and retaliation on various bases, including age.

After some discovery had taken place, including the plaintiff's deposition, the school moved for summary judgment, a type of motion designed to end the plaintiff's entire case. The school based its motion on the ministerial exception, which bars application of employment discrimination laws arising out of the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers. Thus, the issue in the case was whether the plaintiff, as an art teacher, qualified as a “minister,” such that the ministerial exception precluded her lawsuit. The trial court found that the plaintiff, in performing her duties as an art teacher, was, in fact, a minister and dismissed the case. The plaintiff appealed.

The ministerial exception was first endorsed by the United States Supreme Court in a 2012 decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC. In that case, a fourth-grade teacher alleged that she had been fired in retaliation for threatening to file a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Supreme Court held that the ministerial exception applied to bar the teacher's claims. In doing so, it declined to create and apply a bright-line test for deciding all such cases. Instead, it focused on the facts of that case and found the following to be decisive: the school had held the teacher out as a minister; the teacher's formal title was “Minister of Religion, Commissioned;” the teacher held herself out as a minister by accepting a formal call to religious service; and the teacher's job duties were religious in nature and involved teaching religion, leading her students in prayer, and other duties that the high court found “performed an important role in transmitting the Lutheran faith to the next generation.”

In another decision eight years later, the United States Supreme Court held that the ministerial exception barred a lawsuit by two Catholic elementary school teachers who alleged they were terminated in violation of federal anti-discrimination lawsuits. While those teachers lacked the title of minister and had limited religious training, the Supreme Court held that there was much evidence that the teachers performed “vital religious duties.” More succinctly, the Supreme Court stated that “[w]hat matters, at bottom, is what an employee does.”

With those decisions as the foundation for its analysis, the California Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's decision to take the case away from the jury. In reversing, the Court of Appeal found it important that the plaintiff did not perform religious duties in her role as an office administrator, which she worked two full days a week; did not teach religion to her students in her role as an art teacher; and was not required by the school to teach religion in her role as an art teacher.

The school had presented evidence that the plaintiff, in performing her duties, did include religious methodology in her teaching; did lead the students in an end-of-the-day prayer; that the plaintiff had promoted the six tasks of catechesis set forth in the Archdiocese's Administrative Handbook; and had signed employment-related documents acknowledging her willingness to be a role model and witness to the “Gospel of Christ,” among other things.

Perhaps most important to the Court of Appeal was the fact that the alleged discriminatory act was the school's refusal to retain the plaintiff in her office administrator position, which involved the performance of purely secular duties. Any religious activity performed by the plaintiff had occurred in her role as an art teacher, a position that was being eliminated due to budget constraints.  

In a summary judgment motion, the trial judge decides whether a reasonable jury could find for the plaintiff based on the issues raised in the motion. If so, the judge will deny the motion and let a jury hear all the evidence and decide who wins. If not, the judge will grant the motion and enter a judgment for the moving party (usually the defendant). The latter is what happened here. But the Court of Appeal unanimously disagreed with the trial judge, which means if the case doesn't settle, then a jury, after hearing all the evidence presented at trial, will decide who wins.  

It might surprise many people that a court would perform such a fact-intensive analysis to determine whether a part-time art teacher in a religious school “ministers” to her students in the same way that ordained ministers do when ministering to their parishioners in church. Once the Supreme Court recognized and validated the ministerial exception in light of the First Amendment's religion clauses, lower courts were bound to do the same and engage in similar analyses.  Outcomes in any given case will not only depend on what facts exist, but also on the importance and interpretation given by any particular judge or panel of judges to those facts.              

The case is Atkins v. St. Cecilia Catholic School, decided on April 28, 2023. The full opinion can be found here.