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Fifth Circuit Broadly Construes Ministerial Exception to Federal Employment Discrimination Laws

Churches enjoy a special exception when it comes to the employment discrimination laws.  The “ministerial exception” to claims brought under federal, state and local laws has been recognized for some time in various courts around the country.  The exception was finally recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. EEOC, 132 S.Ct. 694, 702-09 (2012).

In Philip Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin, No. 11-51151 (5th Cir. Oct. 24, 2012) the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals applied the “ministerial exception” to bar an employment discrimination claim by a church music director.  Philip Cannata brought claims against his church employer alleging that he was terminated in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).   Although Mr. Cannata was the church music director, he was not an ordained minister.

In applying the exception under Hosanna-Tabor to someone other than an ordained minister, the Fifth Circuit pointed out that the position of music director was an integral part of the church ministry and that the musical element of church service was a sacred part of the religious ceremony. The application of the “ministerial exception” to individuals other than ordained ministers will bar a broad category of non-ministers from asserting federal employment discrimination claims.

– Charles Griffin