Thursday, February 16, 2023

Ministerial Exception Bars Disability Discrimination Suit Against Zen Center

In Behrend v. San Francisco Zen Center, Inc., (ND CA, Feb. 14, 2023), a California federal district court dismissed on ministerial exception grounds a disability discrimination suit brought against a Zen Center by plaintiff who was participating in the Center's Zen Buddhism practice program. The program included both a "formal practice" (meditations, services, educational programs) and a "work practice" (cooking, dishwashing, bathroom and guest room cleaning, ringing bells) component. Finding that the ministerial exception applied, the court said in part:

[B]oth the formal practice and the work practice, “lie[s] at the very core of the mission of” SF Zen Center. Guadalupe, 140 S. Ct. at 2064. And so, drawing all reasonable inferences in Mr. Behrend’s favor, every reasonable trier of fact would be compelled to find his position implicates the fundamental purpose of the ministerial exception. The Work Practice Apprentice position was undisputedly a residential religious training program, and work practice was undisputedly a part of that religious training. Work as part of learning to practice the faith and work as part of training to lead the faith implicate the same fundamental purpose of the exception.