Teacher at Catholic School Permitted to Bring Age-Bias Claim

By Joanne Deschenaux, J.D. June 5, 2023

​Takeaway: A former art teacher and officer administrator at a Los Angeles Catholic school was not barred by the ministerial exception from bringing an age discrimination claim against the school where her job duties were secular in nature. 

​A former art teacher and officer administrator at a Catholic school could go forward with her age discrimination claim against the school, a California appeals court recently ruled. The plaintiff's job duties were secular in nature, and the school failed to show that the ministerial exception applied in this case, the appellate court concluded. The ministerial exception holds that religious institutions can't be sued for discrimination against employees who qualify as "ministers."

The plaintiff was employed for about 40 years by a Los Angeles Catholic school, which offers a faith-based education to students from kindergarten through eighth grade. When she first started at the school, she worked as a part-time secretary or office administrator. Her job duties included answering phones, filing, photocopying, maintaining student records and communicating with parents.

In 1999, the plaintiff began working as a part-time art teacher at the school in addition to performing her office administration duties. In this role, she taught studio art and art history and would also serve as a substitute teacher in other subjects from time to time. Throughout her tenure at the school, she was the only art teacher.

During her final year of employment, the plaintiff worked part time at the school three days a week as an office administrator and an art teacher.

The plaintiff identifies as a nondenominational Christian, not as a Catholic. She does not have any formal religious education, and she was not required to take any religious courses as part of her employment at the school. In her role as both an office administrator and an art teacher at the school, she did not teach or preach Catholicism. She was not expected to instruct students about Jesus or the Bible, or to attend any prayer services.

In 2017, about a year before the plaintiff was discharged, the school hired someone new to work in the office as a secretary. The new hire was younger than the plaintiff, and the plaintiff helped train her for the position.

In the summer of 2018, a new principal took over at the school. He decided that the school could no longer afford a fine-arts teacher and eliminated the plaintiff's position. He did not offer her the opportunity to continue working at the school in an office administration position, but instead discharged her. Following the plaintiff's termination, the new hire took over all of the office administration duties that the plaintiff had previously performed.

The plaintiff subsequently filed a lawsuit against the school, claiming age discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. The school sought to have the action dismissed before trial, arguing that the claim was barred by the ministerial exception. The trial court agreed and dismissed the lawsuit. The plaintiff appealed.

The Ministerial Exception

The appeals court first noted that the ministerial exception is grounded in the language of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The exception operates to preclude application of employment discrimination laws to certain claims arising out of the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers, the court said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister, the appeals court explained. It has said that a court should focus on the individual's actual job duties and whether these duties reflect a role in conveying the church's message and carrying out its mission.

The plaintiff here argued that the trial court erred in concluding that the ministerial exception applied, because her job duties as both an office administrator and an art teacher were secular in nature and did not involve the teaching of religion to the students.

The school claimed that the plaintiff was subject to the exception because the school entrusted her with educating and forming students in the Catholic faith, and she fully embraced that role in her teaching position.

The court said it was first required to look at what the plaintiff actually did as an employee. The plaintiff did not teach religion to the students, nor was there any indication in the record that she was required to do so. The subject of religion was taught by a separate religion teacher.

Although the plaintiff did sometimes include religious methodology in her teaching of art history, this was not limited to any particular religion, but rather focused on how religion might have affected a particular artist's work, the court noted.

Additionally, while the students did create some religious-themed art projects, such as Christmas cards depicting the nativity scene, the plaintiff did not teach the students about any of the religious aspects of the nativity scene or Christmas.

Furthermore, the plaintiff's position with the school was not exclusively that of an art teacher, the court said, and her nonteaching office job was purely secular in nature.

The appeals court concluded that the trial court erred in dismissing the lawsuit before trial because the school had not established that the plaintiff was subject to the ministerial exception.

Atkins v. St. Celia Catholic School, Calif. Ct. App, No. B314220 (April 28, 2023).

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md. 



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