A church music director could not assert age and disability discrimination claims against the Catholic Diocese of Austin and St. John Neumann Catholic Church because the “ministerial exception” applied, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled. The ministerial exception bars employment-discrimination suits by ministers against their churches. The Court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the music director’s discrimination claims. Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin et al., No. 11-51151 (5th Cir. Oct. 24, 2012). The Fifth Circuit has jurisdiction over Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

Background

Philip E. Cannata was the Music Director at St. John Neumann Catholic Church. As such, Cannata oversaw the music department’s budget and expenditures, managed the sound systems at the Church, maintained the sound equipment, music room, and music area in the sanctuary, rehearsed with the choir and cantors, and accompanied them on the piano during services while running the soundboard. In August 2007, the Church’s pastor fired Cannata. Cannata sued the Church for alleged age and disability discrimination, and the Church asked the district court to dismiss his claims based on the ministerial exception. Agreeing that the exception applied, the district court granted the Church’s motion, and Cannata appealed.

Applicable Law

The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the right of religious organizations to control their internal affairs. In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694 (2012), a unanimous Supreme Court recognized the “ministerial exception” to the anti-discrimination laws and held that the “Religion Clauses bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.” In recognizing the exception, the Court declined to adopt a “rigid formula” for determining when an employee falls within the ministerial exception and, instead, examined the totality of the circumstance surrounding the particular employment. 

In an effort to bring further clarity to the Court’s position, Justice Samuel Alito noted in his concurring opinion that, because of the religious diversity in the United States, “it would be a mistake if the term ‘minister’ or the concept of ordination were viewed as central to the important issue of religious autonomy that is presented in” ministerial exception cases.” Instead, Justice Alito suggested that courts should focus on the functions performed by the employee for the religious organization. In general, those individuals in leadership positions, who perform important functions during worship services, religious ceremonies, and rituals, and those responsible for teaching or conveying religious tenets to the next generation, would be covered by the ministerial exception.

Music Director within Ministerial Exception

Cannata argued that the ministerial exception did not apply to him because he merely played the piano at Mass and that his only responsibilities were keeping the books, running the sound system, and doing custodial work, none of which was religious in nature. The Court disagreed, relying on Hosanna-Tabor. The Court noted that the evidence showed that church musicians “exercise a genuine liturgical ministry,” even though Cannata also performed secular duties. Specifically, Cannata oversaw the planning and coordination of the Church’s music program, which played an important role in the celebration of Catholic Mass. According to the Church, by doing so, Cannata “drew the congregation closer to Christ, and allowed the congregation to act together in celebration by singing praises and hymns to the Lord, which in turn strengthen[ed] the faith that is in them.” In light of his undisputed liturgical role, the Court found that Cannata fell within the ministerial exception.

Cannata further argued that he was not ordained nor did he have formal religious training. However, formal training or ordination is not required to fall within the ministerial exception as noted in Hosanna-Tabor. The evidence showed that Cannata performed the music at Mass on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings and that he and his wife selected the hymns to be played at Mass each Sunday. Cannata did not coordinate his musical selections with the priest, and he often boasted of his role in building one of the best music programs in the diocese and training a “large number” of cantors. Cannata led and accompanied the choir at practice, going over the music with them and teaching them every Tuesday. Because he made unilateral, important decisions regarding the musical direction at Mass, the Church considered him a minister, and it was not the Court’s role to second-guess the Church’s decision. Simply put, according to the Court, the Mass is the center of the Church, and Cannata was at the center of the Mass. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the ministerial exception barred Cannata’s discrimination claims against the Church and affirmed the district court’s judgment.

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This decision provides guidance to religious employers regarding the nature of the ministerial exception to the anti-discrimination laws. Significantly, employees need not be ordained or have any formal religious training to fall within the exception. Further, even if employees perform some secular functions, if their overall duties further the institution’s religious mission, the ministerial exception may apply.