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Court Reversal Preserves ‘Ministerial Exception’

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

If you're a religious organization, don't be intimidated by employees invoking anti-discrimination laws as a way to protest your legitimate religious mission. When it comes to how you manage religious staff, government must keep its hands off.

In an abrupt reversal, the 3rd Circuit recently ruled that religious organizations don't have to abide by Title VII and other federal anti-discrimination laws if their employees' jobs broadly relate to religion. Just two months ago, the same court (but a different combination of judges) ruled that sex discrimination and harassment laws can apply to religious institutions.

The case: Lynette Petruska, chaplain at a Catholic university, complained that the college president sexually harassed another female employee. Petruska claimed the university demoted her and forced her out because she spoke up. The 3rd Circuit has now dismissed her retaliation case, saying an employee's interference in a religious institution's employment decisions would amount to interfering with the free exercise of religion. The court did allow Petruska to pursue a breach-of-contract claim. (Petruska v. Gannon University, No. 05-1222, 3rd Cir., 2006)  

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