Friday, March 09, 2018

Hospital Can Assert Ministerial Exception Defense To Suit By Chaplain

In Penn v. New York Methodist Hospital, (2d Cir., March 7, 2018), the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision held that a hospital "only historically connected to the United Methodist Church but still providing religious services through its pastoral care department" may invoke the ministerial exception doctrine.  The court summarized its majority opinion:
Mr. Penn—a former duty chaplain at New York Methodist Hospital—brought a lawsuit alleging that New York Methodist Hospital and Peter Poulos discriminated against him on the basis of his race and religion, and retaliated against him after he filed charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the New York City Commission on Human Rights. New York Methodist Hospital, because of its history and continuing purpose, through its Department of Pastoral Care, is a “religious group.” Mr. Penn’s role within the Department of Pastoral Care was to provide religious care to the hospital’s patients and religious care only. Therefore, the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses warrant the application of the ministerial exception doctrine and the dismissal of this lawsuit.
Judge Droney dissented, saying in part:
The presence of a non‐sectarian chaplaincy department cannot transform an otherwise secular hospital into a religious institution for purposes of the ministerial exception.  If it could, most hospitals would be exempt from anti‐discrimination laws, as most—even clearly secular hospitals—have chaplaincy departments.... Moreover, the interfaith nature of the Department means that it is not run according to the tenets of any particular religion, thereby reducing the likelihood that evaluating the reasons for the termination of an employee such as Penn would “plunge [a court] into a maelstrom of Church policy, administration, and governance.”
Courthouse News Service reports on the decision.