One Step Forward, One Step Back for Religious Liberty

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by Stephen Wynne  •  •  July 17, 2017   

Victory for NY archdiocese, blow for NC

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NEW YORK ( - Religious liberty was dealt a victory and a setback in separate rulings Friday.

In what is being hailed as "a victory for schools of all faiths," the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the archdiocese of New York retains the right to hire staff that will contribute to its faith mission.

The case, Fratello v. Archdiocese of New York, stemmed from a dispute between St. Anthony School in Nanuet and its former principal, Joanne Fratello.  

In 2011, the school dismissed Fratello for alleged insubordination. Fratello filed suit against St. Anthony's school and the archdiocese of New York, accusing them of sex-based discrimination.

The archdiocese was represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit, public-interest firm dedicated to protecting "the free expression of all faiths." The court found that Fratello "held herself out as a spiritual leader of the School and performed many important religious functions to 13 advance its Roman Catholic mission."

"The ministerial exception thus bars her employment‐discrimination claims because she was a minister within the meaning of the exception," the court ruled.

After the decision was handed down, Becket released a statement outlining what was at stake in the case:

As principal of St. Anthony School, Joanne Fratello was a religious leader responsible for leading students in daily prayer, inviting and accompanying them to mass, ensuring their curriculum and teachers expressed Catholic faith, and hosting them at religious ceremonies. 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. Yet the trial lawyer claimed that the school was not allowed to hire the principal who would best promote the Church's teachings.

Fratello's attorney, Michael Diederich, Jr., slammed the ruling as "pernicious" and announced his intention to file a petition to re-argue the case before the entire bench of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Diederich's views on religious liberty were highlighted in a controversial response to an amicus brief filed in support of the archdiocese. Asserting that "organized religion and religious dogma are dangerous to a society," Diederich argued that society demands "enlightened rationality." He claimed the Founding Fathers harbored "disdain for organized religion," and cited the views of renowned secular humanist and atheist, Edward O. Wilson, to bolster his claim.  

But the Becket Fund dismissed Diederich's claims as "outrageous," noting that the court of appeals "focused on the law stating that religions must be free to choose their leaders ... ."

Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund, applauded the ruling: "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. Now St. Anthony's can go back to giving their students a quality education in the arts, sciences and faith."

North Carolinians, meanwhile, suffered a blow to religious liberty when the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Lund v. Rowan County that the Board of Commissioners violated the Constitution by opening their meetings with Christian prayer and inviting attendees to join them.

Writing for the majority, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson found the practice unconstitutional."The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion," he stated.

Dissenting, Judge Paul Niemeyer argued that the decision "actively undermines the appropriate role of prayer in American civil life."

"In finding Rowan county's prayer practice unconstitutional, essentially because the prayers were sectarian," he contended, "the majority's opinion strikes at the very trunk of religion, seeking to outlaw most prayer given in government assemblies, even though such prayer has been an important part of the fabric of our democracy and civic life ... ."

The case is being closely watched, as it is likely to advance to the Supreme Court on appeal, where it's likely the 4th Circuit Court's ruling will be overturned. The Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that clergy could lead predominantly Christian prayers at town meetings in New York.


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