– The Archdiocese of New York argued before a federal circuit court this week that it should have the freedom to make employment decisions about Catholic school principals without government intervention.
“It is important that church-sponsored schools like St. Anthony’s be able to ensure that each student receives the best education in math, science, art as well as the Catholic faith,” Mercedes Lopez Blanco of the Archdiocese of New York stated on Tuesday.
“To do that, we must have the freedom to choose leaders – without government interference – who are dedicated to our mission.”
Blanco made her statement after oral arguments took place in Fratello v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York on Tuesday. That case involves a lawsuit filed by a Catholic school principal whose contract with the archdiocese was not renewed, and who says the decision was made on the grounds of unlawful gender discrimination.
The archdiocese, represented by Becket Fund, says that they decided not to renew the contract of former principal of St. Anthony School Joanne Fratello because of her insubordination to the pastor of the parish and the archdiocese. The archdiocese says it has First Amendment protections in its hiring decisions of Catholic school principals, because it falls under the “ministerial exemption.”
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the archdiocese, argues that it is an important case for the religious freedom of all faiths against government coercion.
St. Anthony School is part of the Archdiocese of New York, which had a contract with Fratello. The principal at St. Anthony’s is responsible not only for the education of the students but for leading the student body in prayer every day, hiring teachers based on their use of religion in the school curricula, and for inviting students and parents to attend Mass.
Fratello claims that her contract was not renewed because of sex-based discrimination, and that she was not hired by the archdiocese in a ministerial capacity but in a “lay” capacity.
This, her lawyer argued, made her case different from the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor case, where the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of churches’ employment decisions of ministers, saying the government could not interfere with those decisions.
In that decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that a Lutheran church had the right to make employment decisions in its school that was directly connected to the church, as the grade school teacher who was fired had served in a ministerial capacity and had the title “minister of religion.”
The federal government, specifically the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, could not intervene in such decisions out of concern for discrimination, the Court said in that 9-0 decision.
In Fratello’s case, the principal’s record was “replete” with religious duties including leading students in prayer each day, Rassbach said. Furthermore, the archdiocese has made it clear that the duty of a principal at St. Anthony’s is ministerial by nature.
That Fratello was hired in a “lay” capacity did not mean that her job was a secular one, he emphasized. Rather, it meant that she was not part of a religious order, where her contract would not have included a salary.
Because she was a lay Catholic and her contract included a salary, Fratello was hired on a “lay” contract even though her job would be ministerial. A diocesan priest would have received a similar contract, Rassbach noted.
And Fratello emphasized her religious credentials when she applied to be the principal at St. Anthony’s, Rassbach said. She praised herself as an “excellent religious leader.”
Fratello’s lawyer, Michael Diederich, has written openly of his disdain for the Church. He wrote a scathing reply to a “friend of the court” brief filed by the Orthodox Church of America on behalf of the archdiocese, where he expressed contempt for “organized religion” as a threat to “enlightened rationality.”
Fratello should have been kept in her position by the archdiocese because as a secular employee, she could protect students against religious indoctrination, he argued.
He said that “our American democracy” would be “undermined if religious groups can propagandize and indoctrinate school children without the constraint of a loyal American citizen and educator (e.g., a lay school teacher or principal) insisting that secular curriculum be properly taught.”
Diederich disparaged “organized religion” in the U.S., and warned that the Roman Catholic Church is “the most powerful church on Earth,” and that by the archdiocese getting the Orthodox Church to file a brief the Roman Catholic Church “has sounded the alarm to enlist the support for organized religion in an effort to gain even more power and influence that organized religion already has in civil society.”
America’s founders, “people of the Age of Enlightenment – would not approve of judicial advancement of religion,” he continued. According to Diederich, the founders believed “that organized religion and religious dogma are dangerous to a society, and what a society needs is enlightened rationality.”
And he hypothesized about the Orthodox Church indoctrinating children with “Stalinist beliefs” if its school teachers operate in a ministerial capacity.