WASHINGTON – A New York court has ruled that a Catholic school is legally permitted to choose a principal who shares and advances its faith, dismissing a plaintiff’s argument that promoting religion in school is indoctrination akin “to protecting jihadists.”
Administrators of St. Anthony Catholic School claimed their former principal, Joanne Fratello, was ineffective in promoting the school’s Catholic values and did not renew her contract.
Fratello sued St. Anthony and the archdiocese, alleging she was wrongfully fired by the school due to gender discrimination.
A New York federal district court last year dismissed the action against the archdiocese, ruling that the church could invoke “ministerial exception” when firing Fratello, a precedent set by the Supreme Court which exempts religious institutions from anti-discrimination laws in hiring employees.
But Fratello subsequently appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming the school was not legally permitted to hire a principal based on whether the individual would promote the church’s teachings.
Fratello’s attorney, Michael Diederich Jr., argued that the Catholic church is “dangerous to society” and compared the school’s adherence to its beliefs to “indoctrinating children with Stalinist communism.”
“Ms. Fratello and her attorney urge this court to recognize what the Founding Fathers knew, corroborated today by our increasing knowledge in the sciences, namely, that organized religions and religious dogma are dangerous to a society, and what a society needs is enlightened rationality,” Diedrich claimed in a brief to the court.
“Religion is always self-serving to the religious group (the church), and to
the extent that secular courts protect religious practitioners outside the church
house, the courts advance and endorse faith over reason,” he continued
But on Friday, a three-judge panel at the appeals court said the archdiocese has the right to fire Fratello for their stated reason of insubordination.
“We conclude that although Fratello’s formal title was not inherently religious, the record makes clear that she held herself out as a spiritual leader of the school and performed many important functions to advance its Roman Catholic mission,” the court concluded in its ruling. “The ministerial exception thus bars her employment-discrimination claims because she was a minister within the meaning of the exception.”
The court explained the law permits religious groups, not the state, to choose leaders who agree with their mission.
Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at Becket, a Washington-based legal institute, had argued the case for St. Anthony and the Archdiocese.
In an interview with WND, Rassbach blasted the attorneys representing Fratello for comparing Christianity to Stalinism.
“Attorneys representing Fratello made a lot of extreme arguments, essentially saying that religious schools are something dangerous and should be carefully controlled by the government because they would indoctrinate children,” Rassbach said. “Essentially, he made comparisons to Stalinism, jihadists, and a number of other groups that we thought were outrageous.”
He said it’s a victory for schools of all faiths.
“If a religious school is going to have the government come in and say ‘you can’t do that’ –
that’s what you see in communist countries or other dictatorships that don’t like religion,” he said. “They will say ‘you can have a school’ and ‘you can even found a school, but whatever you do, don’t include the religious message’ – well that’s not the system in this country.”
He said, “The court saw right through this blatantly anti-Catholic lawsuit, agreeing with the Supreme Court that the church, not the state, should pick religious leaders. Now St. Anthony’s can go back to giving their students a quality education in the arts, science and faith.”
The precedent comes from the EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor, about a Lutheran school’s right to choose teachers free from government intrusion.
Rassbach argued Fratello’s lawyers were trying to roll back the clock – and insert government players into the process through which a church school chooses leaders.
“Our argument is that a principal of a religious school, in this case a Catholic parish school, is an important religious leader,” he said. “They have a role in spreading the message of that particular faith. It’s outrageous, wrong and simply dumb for the government – whether it be a government agency or a government court to come in and try to decide who the messenger is for the church. The church gets complete control over who its leads its message and to do that it needs control over who its messengers are.”