Court dismisses Catholic school teacher’s employment discrimination claim

Federal district court Nick Starichenko/Shutterstock

A federal district court dismissed the employment discrimination claim of a New Jersey Catholic school teacher last week, ruling that she was a religious “minister” and thus exempt from certain employment discrimination laws. 

Joan Simon, a former teacher at Saint Dominic Academy in Jersey City, had claimed that she was terminated by the school because of her “age, disability, and whistleblowing activities.” The academy is an all-girls Grade 7-12 school sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Dominic of Caldwell, New Jersey.

Simon, who is in her late fifties, said she was fired from St. Dominic’s on Oct. 9, 2018, the day after she returned from medical leave following a car accident. She also claimed that the teacher who replaced her was “unqualified” for the position. 

Simon also said in her lawsuit that throughout her employment, she had made numerous complaints to the administration, including to the dean, of “violations of the law and...educational process” at the school.

A federal district court, however, ruled on April 28 that as Simon was both chairperson of the school’s religious department and campus minister, “her duties appear to fit squarely within the ministerial exception.” 

Federal laws against employment discrimination provide certain religious exemptions in the cases of religious ministers. The “ministerial exception” prohibits government interference in the employment decisions of religious organizations that involve ministers; the court determined last week that Simon’s role at the school met the definition of a minister of religion.

The Supreme Court ruled last year in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru that two former Catholic school teachers in California could not sue the schools for employment discrimination, as they were functioning as religious ministers in their roles at the schools. 

The high court wrote that “courts are bound to stay out of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions.”

The federal district court last week drew upon this case in its ruling on Simon’s complaint. 

“As pled, Plaintiff falls into the ministerial exception as set forth in Our Lady of Guadalupe,” the court wrote, adding that in her role, she “performed a vital religious duty––teaching and promoting the Catholic faith to students.”

Thus, the district court dismissed Simon’s discrimination and breach-of-contract claims. 

“Plaintiff’s allegations regarding [the school’s] breaches of the employment contract will require the Court to second guess [the school’s] decision to terminate a minister, which is precisely what the ministerial exception is intended to prohibit and will necessarily entangle the Court in internal church governance,” Judge John Michael Vazquez of the U.S. district court for New Jersey wrote. 

Simon told the Jersey Journal that she believes her firing was also connected to a letter she had shared with her students concerning the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the U.S.  

The 2018 letter, entitled “Dear Troubled Catholics,” was written by author Ralph Martin of Renewal Ministries. In his letter, Martin made repeated references to “a huge homosexual problem in the Church,” calling the crisis “primarily a homosexual scandal.”

“We need to remember that the Catholic Church is indeed founded by Christ and, despite all problems, has within it the fullness of the means of salvation. Where else can we go? Nowhere; this is indeed our Mother and Home, and she needs our love, our prayers, and our persevering in the way of holiness more than ever,” the letter reads in part. 

“That isn’t to say that we don’t need to take seriously and do all we can in response to the grave scandal we are facing in our time. And yet we need to remember that all this is happening under the providence of God, and He has a plan to bring good out of it,” Martin wrote.

Simon said she had distributed the letter in September 2018 to the high school students she taught, hoping they would find it “beneficial.” She says she was fired a month later, after returning from medical leave. 

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At the time of Simon’s termination, Saint Dominic's head of school, Sarah Degnan Barbi, issued a statement to the Jersey Journal. "The matter raised by Mrs. Simon is a personnel issue, and we will not comment on it. We will say, however, that every decision made within Saint Dominic Academy is in the interest of the young women entrusted to our care,” Barbi stated.

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