New York Archdiocese Defends Right to Fire Principal in Federal Court

High school teacher Elva Jamieson marks student assignments in her classroom at the Gaweni:yo High School in the Six Nations Reserve January 31, 2008.
High school teacher Elva Jamieson marks student assignments in her classroom at the Gaweni:yo High School in the Six Nations Reserve January 31, 2008. | (Photo: Reuters/Julie Gordon)

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York is being sued by a former private school principal who claims she was wrongfully fired due to gender discrimination.

A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently heard arguments in the case, which centers on if St. Anthony's School Principal Joanne Fratello was wrongfully terminated or if the legal precedent of "ministerial exception" to Title VII gives the Archdiocese to the right to fire her for their stated reason of insubordination.

Michael Diederich Jr. of the Diederich Law Office, attorney for Fratello since 2011, told The Christian Post in an interview on Wednesday that he saw this as "a very important case for safeguarding American democracy and the Founding Fathers' wise separation of church and state."

"If educators are required to be more than merely religiously faithful, but instead 'ministers,' then their loyalty shifts from being loyal to the needs of the children (their wards) to that of their church employer," said Diederich.

"Mischief will result, because power always begets abuse. The children will suffer in their education, as will the Church in its credibility."

Diederich also told CP that he felt the panel "appeared very interested in the case" as he argued that "giving 'ministerial immunity' to employers essentially deprived employees, such as Ms. Fratello, of their civil rights."

"I also argued that when a church operates in the secular world, whether operating a private school or a Bible-manufacturing company, its 'business' activities must be subject to civil law, with reasonable accommodation of religious belief," continued Diederich.

"In sum, this case will decide whether organized religion receives immunity from civil law regarding lay employees such as Ms. Fratello, and whether employees of religious organizations will lose the protection of law, and thus lose their civil rights."

In 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Seibel dismissed the suit against the Archdiocese, arguing that the Church could invoke "ministerial exception" when firing Fratello.

The Archdiocese is being represented by Becket, a Washington, D.C.–based legal institute formerly known as the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Daniel Blomberg, one of the Becket attorneys involved in the case, told CP on Wednesday that Becket joined the litigation during the appeals process.

"We primarily work on the appellate and Supreme Court level and so we wrote the appellate response brief last fall and did the oral argument just a couple weeks ago," explained Blomberg.

"We think the argument went very well. The court was very engaged. The panel had clearly dug into both the record in the case and the applicable law. We think the applicable law is very good for us and for the school here."

Blomberg also told CP that he was confident they would succeed, citing the Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In Hosanna-Tabor, which was also argued by Becket, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a Lutheran school could fire a fourth grade teacher for violating Church teaching.

"In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that a fourth grade teacher with some important religious duties and important religious role was a minister for purposes of the First Amendment," continued Blomberg.

"And we think here where we have a principal at a religious school who had even more religious duties and even clearer religious role, clearly should qualify as a minister for purposes of First Amendment."

According to Blomberg, with oral arguments over the panel will likely make a decision on the appeal within the next three to six months, though there is no official deadline for a ruling.

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