Appeal court denies summary judgment; issue of ministerial exception triable
A California court has found that the core of an art teacher’s job responsibilities did not consist of educating students in the Catholic faith, given that she also held the role of an office administrator.
St. Cecilia Catholic School employed the plaintiff in the case of Atkins v. St. Cecilia Catholic School from 1978 to 2018. Initially, she worked as a part-time secretary or office administrator. In 1999, she started working as a part-time art teacher as well. She also occasionally served as a substitute teacher for other subjects.
In the summer of 2018, the school’s new principal met the plaintiff to discuss her position and availability for the upcoming school year. A week later, the principal decided that the school should eliminate her teaching position since it could no longer afford an art teacher. She did not receive an opportunity to continue working in an office administration position.
In 2019, the plaintiff sued the school. She alleged that the school terminated her because of her age and replaced her with a much younger and less experienced employee, which amounted to age discrimination under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.
In 2021, the school filed a motion for summary judgment. It argued that the ministerial exception barred the plaintiff’s claim because, in the art teacher role, the school entrusted her with the responsibility of educating and forming its students in the Catholic faith.
The ministerial exception is a constitutional doctrine that prevents ministers from filing certain employment claims against the religious institution.
Read more: Religion in the workplace
The trial court agreed that the ministerial exception barred the plaintiff’s claim so it granted summary judgment in the school’s favor.
Teacher’s claim not barred
The California Court of Appeal for the Second District reversed the decision and ordered the trial court to deny the school’s motion for summary judgment. The school did not deserve summary judgment because there were triable factual issues regarding whether the ministerial exception applied to the plaintiff’s former job position, the appellate court said.
In her final year of employment, the plaintiff worked part-time as both an office administrator and as an art teacher. As an office administrator, she performed secretarial or clerical duties such as answering phones, photocopying, and maintaining student records. This office job was purely secular, the appellate court decided.
As a teacher, the plaintiff taught visual art and art history. Another teacher taught the subject of religion and instructed students on the Catholic doctrine, the appellate court noted.
While the plaintiff sometimes included religious methodology when teaching art history, she did not limit her discussion to any particular religion, the appellate court said. Instead, she discussed different religions and focused on how religion might have impacted an artist’s work.
The plaintiff also did not discuss the religious aspects of Christmas or the nativity scene even though the students sometimes created religious art projects such as Christmas cards depicting the nativity scene, the appellate court added.
The appellate court acknowledged that the school presented evidence that the plaintiff would lead the prayers of “Our Father” or “Hail Mary” at the end of class if art was the last period of the day and would promote the six tasks of catechesis of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles by encouraging “Christ-like” behavior in her class.
However, the appellate court found that the school’s evidence did not show that the plaintiff taught any type of religious curriculum, led any religious services, prepared the students for participating in such services, or attended such services herself.