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Are Hospitals Founded by Religious Groups Exempt from Employment Discrimination Laws?

Are Hospitals Founded by Religious Groups Exempt from Employment Discrimination Laws?

Last year we discussed a New York federal appeals court's holding that the ex-principal of a Catholic school could not challenge her termination under employment discrimination laws because the First Amendment to the Constitution prevented the government from interfering with a religious group's “determination of who can act as its ministers.” In this context, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals said, the principal was a “minister” as she performed a religious role for the Archdiocese. The fact that she did not formally hold a ministerial title was irrelevant.

Divided Second Circuit Dismisses Claim Against Methodist Hospital

On March 7, the Second Circuit once again relied on the “ministerial exception” to reject an employment discrimination case. This time, the plaintiff actually was a minister in name and fact. The employer was a hospital that was only “historically connected” to a church. Despite this tenuous link, the Second Circuit said the ministerial exception still applied.

The plaintiff in this lawsuit worked for approximately seven years as a duty chaplain for New York Methodist Hospital (NYMH). The United Methodist Church established and funded NYMH in the 1880s. But in 1975, the hospital filed an amended charter that removed all references to its relationship with the church. Since then the hospital has held itself out as a “secular” health care facility.

However, NYMH also maintains a “pastoral care” department, which employed the plaintiff among other chaplains. This department provides a variety of religious services to patients and families who request them. NYMH does not require its chaplains to be ordained ministers, but staff chaplains must meet certain educational requirements.

The plaintiff in this case worked as a deputy chaplain. He claimed he sought a promotion to staff chaplain on numerous occasions, but was turned down because of his race (he's African-American) and religion. Although the plaintiff is actually a Methodist, his lawsuit alleged NYMH was seeking a Roman Catholic for the staff chaplain's position he was most recently denied. Ultimately, the plaintiff said he was fired from his duty chaplain's job after another chaplain filed a sexual harassment complaint against him.

NYMH moved for summary judgment against the plaintiff's race and religion discrimination claims, maintaining they were barred by the ministerial exception as defined by the Second Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court. The trial judge agreed with the hospital, as did the Second Circuit. As the Court of Appeals explained in its ruling, while NYMH may now be a secular institution, its pastoral care department maintains significant “religious characteristics,” rendering the relationship between the plaintiff and the hospital as “one of a religions employee and a religious institution.”

The problem, the court explained, was that NYMH maintains it fired the plaintiff due to his alleged shortcomings as a pastor. This means that “[a]ny jury hearing [the plaintiff's employment discrimination and retaliation claims therefore would have to determine how a minister should conduct religious services or provide spiritual support.” This would amount to state interference with religion, which is forbidden by the First Amendment's free exercise and establishment clauses.

The Second Circuit's ruling was not unanimous. One member of the three-judge panel dissented, arguing the majority had “set the bar far too low for employers to claim religious-based immunity from federal anti-discrimination law.” The dissent said NYMH was not a “religious institution” and therefore not entitled to cite the ministerial exception.

Contact a New York Religious Discrimination Lawyer Today

The Second Circuit's division on this case illustrates how courts continue to struggle with the intersection of religious freedom and enforcing the country's employment discrimination laws. Keep in mind, even clearly religious employers cannot discriminate against non-ministerial employees. If you have been the victim of workplace discrimination and need advice from a qualified New York employment law attorney on how to proceed, contact the Law Offices of White, Nisar & Hilferty, LLP. at (646) 760-6493 today.

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