Court Unsure Whether Ministerial Exception Applies To Part-Time Employee Working As Art Teacher And Office Administrator

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: May 25, 2023

St. Cecilia is a Catholic elementary school within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (ADLA). Frances Atkins was employed by St. Cecilia for approximately 40 years from 1978 to 2018 as a part-time secretary or office administrator until her employment was terminated at the end of the 2017-2018 school year. In 1999, Atkins began working as a part-time art teacher at the school as well, teaching studio art and art history. She also would serve as a substitute from time to time.

In 2012, Atkins signed a job application for a “non-teaching staff” position at St. Cecilia’s. This application was for the position as an office manager and Atkins checked a box indicating that she was “willing to maintain by word and actions, a position of role model and witness to the Gospel of Christ that is in conformity with the teachings, standards, doctrines, laws, and norms of the Roman Catholic Church as interpreted by the [ADLA].” Atkins also signed a three-page job description, which included language that the position required one who “actively supports and is expected to conduct themselves in accordance with the philosophy and mission of the Church/School while performing their work.” Atkins did not sign a job application or job description for her position as a part-time art teacher.

Atkins testified that while the students had Religion class each day, which she did not teach, she would discuss with the students what they were learning in Religion class and ensure that the students were acting in a “Christ-like” way. Atkins would incorporate religion when it had relevant application to an artist they were learning about. Atkins does not consider herself to be Catholic and has not taken any religious courses as part of her employment.

In 2017, about one year before Atkins was discharged, St. Cecilia’s principal hired a new office secretary. In the summer of 2018, Patrick Kelly became St. Cecilia’s new principal. Kelly met with Atkins to discuss her position. Atkins explained that she taught art and also worked in office administration. Kelly said during the meeting that Atkins was doing too much. About one week later, Kelly decided that St. Cecilia could no longer afford a fine arts teacher and the position should be eliminated. Kelly did not offer Atkins the opportunity to continue working in the office administration position.

Atkins sued St. Cecilia’s, alleging age discrimination in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). St. Cecilia’s filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Atkin’s claim for age discrimination was barred by the ministerial exception because, in her role as an art teacher, the School entrusted her with educating and forming students in the Catholic faith. Atkins argued that she was not Catholic, and as the art teacher, did not teach religion or Catholicism to the students. She did not incorporate prayer into her teaching and did not personally place any Catholic symbols inside her classroom.

The trial court granted St. Cecilia’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that St. Cecilia presented extensive evidence that Atkins performed ministerial tasks, such as educating students in the Catholic faith and guiding students to live their lives in accordance with the religious tenets of the School. Atkins appealed.

The ministerial exception, which is grounded in the religion clauses of the First Amendment, precludes employment discrimination laws from applying to certain claims arising out of the employment relationship between a religious institution and its employees that serve religious functions.

The Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court wrongly granted summary judgment to St. Cecilia because there were triable issues of material fact as to whether the ministerial exception applied to Atkin’s former job as an art teacher and office administrator. For example, in her role as an office administrator, Atkins solely performed secretarial and clerical-related duties, such as answering the phones, photocopying, and maintaining student records. As an art teacher, she taught visual art and art history, teaching students about different artists and creating art projects based on their interpretation of the artists’ works. Atkins did not teach religion and there is no indication she was required to do so. While students did create some religious-themed art projects in the form of Christmas cards depicting the nativity scene, Atkins did not teach the students about any of the religious aspects of the nativity scene or Christmas. Atkins would only pray with the students at the end of class if she was teaching during the last period of the day.

Additionally, there was no evidence that Atkins received a job description or job application for her teaching position. Therefore, there was no evidence that St. Cecilia entrusted her as a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the Catholic faith. There was ambiguity as to whether Atkins sought to integrate the Catholic faith into her teaching by educating her students in the faith or whether Atkins simply encouraged her students to lead moral lives in a way that was consistent with the religious mission of the School. Finally, since Atkins held two positions with St. Cecilia, one of which involved no teaching, the Court of Appeals could not conclude that educating students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of Atkins’ job responsibilities.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the case.

Atkins v. St. Cecilia Catholic School (2023) __ Cal. Ct. App. __ [2023 WL 3142316].

Note: This case is relevant for religious schools in California and LCW will monitor this case for future developments.  The ministerial exception prevents certain personnel decisions made by religious employers from judicial review and is an important defense to consider whenever a religious school is faced with employment claims.

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