Ex-church pianist covered by ministerial exception

Monday, October 29, 2012

The former music director of a Catholic Church in Austin, Texas, had his employment discrimination suit rejected by a federal appeals court, because the court determined he qualified as a “minister” within the meaning of the “ministerial exception” legal concept

Under the ministerial exception, ministers cannot bring employment-discrimination claims against religious institutions because churches and other houses of worship need autonomy to make religious-based decisions free from state interference.

Philip E. Cannata became music director at the St. John Neumann Catholic Church in 1997. The parish pastor fired him in August 2007. Cannata filed a federal lawsuit, contending he was fired in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In October 2011, a federal district court dismissed Cannata’s lawsuit, finding that the church had the authority to fire him because he fit within the ambit of the ministerial exception.

Cannata appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On Oct. 24 a three-judge panel unanimously ruled against him in Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin.

Cannata contended he only played music, monitored the sound system and performed custodial work. He said he should not qualify as a minister because he had no religious training and led no worship services. The church countered by emphasizing the importance of music to its religious services. It also noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had applied the ministerial exception to a teacher at a religious school who taught secular subjects in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. EEOC (2012).

In siding with the church, the panel said: “[T]here is no genuine dispute that Cannata played an integral role in the celebration of Mass and that by playing the piano during services, Cannata furthered the mission of the church and helped convey its message to the congregants.”

The 5th Circuit panel noted that prior 5th Circuit law applied a three-part test with a particular focus on whether the employee primarily performed ecclesiastical or secular duties. In its Cannata decision, the 5th Circuit determined that the high court in Hosanna-Tabor had specifically avoided a “rigid formula” and warned against focusing on the amount of secular duties vis-à-vis religious duties.

The 5th Circuit decision shows the reach of Hosanna-Tabor and the ministerial exception. Many employees at religious institutions will not be able to pursue employment-discrimination claims.

Related:

Another religious-school teacher loses to ministerial exception
Ministerial-exception ruling could increase discrimination
Court affirms religious groups’ right to say who’s a minister
High court ruling leaves some workers confused

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