New York City’s anti-discrimination laws prohibit sex discrimination in employment, including sexual harassment and numerous other forms of unlawful conduct. Occasionally, employers allege that court intervention violates civil rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year in a sex discrimination and retaliation case against a religious institution. Although the plaintiff did not directly allege sexual harassment, her complaint alleged that her supervisor made multiple unfounded accusations of sexual impropriety against her. The court ruled that her claims were barred by the “ministerial exception,” which is based on religious protections in the First Amendment. Fratello v. Archdiocese of New York, 863 F.3d 190 (2d Cir. 2017).
The First Amendment states that the government may not “prohibit the free exercise” of religion. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Free Exercise Clause as creating a “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws, holding that “the church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012). The Hosanna-Tabor case involved a teacher at a religious school who was terminated while out on disability leave. She sued for disability discrimination, but the district court dismissed her claim.
The Supreme Court noted that the school made a distinction between “contract teachers” and “called teachers,” with the latter serving a more directly religious “role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.” The plaintiff was a called teacher and therefore fell under the ministerial exception. The opinion does not offer a clear definition of “minister.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas stated that courts should “defer to a religious organization’s good-faith understanding of who qualifies as its minister.” Critics of the ruling have noted that it expands the ministerial exception beyond religious leaders to employees of religious organizations.