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Court says church has right to hire employees who 'advance faith'


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NEW YORK (CNS) -- A court ruling that the New York Archdiocese did not discriminate against a school principal when it did not renew her contract affirms "the freedom of a church to decide who will serve as its religious leaders," said the Alliance Defending Freedom.

The nonprofit legal group, which supports religious freedom and other issues, made the comments about a unanimous decision July 14 by a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Fratello v. Archdiocese of New York.

Joanne Fratello was principal of St. Anthony School in Nanuet from 2007 until 2011, when her contract was not renewed. She sued the New York Archdiocese for gender discrimination.

"When the school believed she was no longer effective at advancing the school's Catholic values, St. Anthony's simply did not renew her contract, rightfully exercising its right to choose the leaders who advance their faith," said the Becket Fund, a nonprofit religious liberty law firm that represented St. Anthony and the archdiocese.

"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," saidEric Rassbach, Becket deputy general counsel, who argued the case for the school and the Archdiocese.

Jeremiah Galus, legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said the First Amendment "plainly protects a church's freedom to decide who serves as its religious leaders, as the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged only five years ago."

He was referring to the high court's 2012 decision in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC affirming a "ministerial exception" to anti-discrimination laws, meaning the Lutheran school and church in that case could not be sued for firing an employee the church classified as a minister.

The 2nd Circuit in its ruling said the ministerial exception "bars Fratello's employment?discrimination claims against the archdiocese, the church and the school, all of which are religious groups within the meaning of the ministerial exception."

"Although her formal title -- 'lay principal' -- does not connote a religious role, the record makes clear that she served many religious functions to advance the school's Roman Catholic mission," the court said.

Those functions included, it said, working closely with teachers to carry out the school's religious mission, leading daily prayers over the loudspeaker, supervising Masses attended by students, and overseeing "teachers' integration of lessons about Catholic saints and religious values" the curriculum.

In a statement issued after the court ruling, Mercedes Lopez Blanco, an archdiocesan spokeswoman, said: "A Catholic school is nothing without a Catholic leader. The principal is an important minister of the faith, who holds a crucial position of passing on our values to the next generation. We are grateful students at St. Anthony's can continue receiving the Catholic education they came for."

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