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'Ministerial Exception' Protects Hospital From Racial Discrimination Claims

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

The First Amendment comes before the Fourteenth Amendment, and sometimes trumps it.

At least that's what happened in Penn v. New York Methodist Hospital. A black chaplain sued the Methodist hospital for racial discrimination, but a federal court rejected his case.

The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals said there is a "ministerial exception" against discrimination claims. In other words, religions can discriminate.

"Ministerial Exception"

Methodist minister Mark Penn, a duty chaplain for the hospital's Department of Pastoral Care, complained that he was not promoted to a full-time position. After a Jewish rabbi and a non-Methodist were considered, he sued for racial discrimination.

A trial judge dismissed his case, and the Second Circuit affirmed. Citing Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the 2-1 majority said ministers cannot claim employment discrimination against religious organizations.

Penn argued that NYMH had become a secular institution, but the appeals court said the pastoral division was non-secular.

"While NYMH may have shed significant aspects of its religious identity by amending its Certificate of Incorporation, the hospital's Department of Pastoral Care has retained a critical aspect of that religious identity in order to provide religious services to its patients," the majority said. "These services, while not limited to those who are Methodist, are indisputably religious."

"Bar Far Too Low"

Judge Christopher Droney dissented, saying the majority "set the bar far too low for employers to claim religious-based immunity from federal anti-discrimination law."

He pointed out that only three of the seventeen hospital trustees are Methodist ministers, and those ministers do not represent the church on the board. The Methodist Church does not operate the hospital, he said, and none of the full-time chaplains are Methodist.

"If the Department were in fact Methodist-oriented, one would expect its director to be Methodist, or for at least one of its permanent chaplains to be Methodist," Droney wrote.

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