New York Catholic-School Principal Exempt from Employment Nondiscrimination Laws’ Protection

For four years, Joanne Fratello was the principal of a Catholic elementary school not far from New York City. When the school did not renew her contract, she sued the school and the church, alleging that the they had engaged in gender discrimination in violation of both state and federal law. The church responded that the First Amendment precludes those laws from applying to them.

St. Anthony’s Elementary School in Nanuet, NY.

This case parallels a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the Court unanimously held that the First Amendment prohibits federal employment laws from applying to “ministers.” The Court wrote:

“The Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.”

So was Joanne Fratello a “minister,” as the Supreme Court used and applied that word? The Second Circuit–although the court made clear that not all “parochial-school principals should be presumed to be ministers”–found that Fratello was, and ruled for the school and church. What tipped the scales for the court was that: (1) the job description required her to be a practicing Catholic, to be proficient in several religious areas, and to exercise “spiritual leadership”; (2) Fratello understood that accepting the title of “principal” meant that she would be perceived as a religious leader; and (3) she performed religious functions, including leading daily prayers, selecting hymns and decorations for masses, and encouraging inclusion of Catholic values into teachers’ lessons.

Case: Fratello v. Archdiocese of N.Y., No. 16-1271 (2d Cir. July 14, 2017) (opinion here)

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