Monday, February 08, 2021

Ministerial Exception Applies To Whistleblower Act Claim

In Rehfield v. Diocese of Joliet, (IL Sup. Ct., Feb. 4, 2021), the Illinois Supreme Court held that the ministerial exception doctrine applies to require dismissal of a suit alleging retaliatory discharge in violation of the state's Whistleblower Act. In the suit, the principal of a Catholic elementary school alleged that her employment was terminated because she reported a parent's threatening conduct to police. After discussing prior Supreme Court and Circuit Court precedent, the court said:

In light of the consistent body of authority discussed above, we decline to hold that plaintiff’s whistleblower claim is exempt from application of the ministerial exception. We note, however, that our holding is confined to the claim at issue in this case. We express no opinion on whether the exception bars a suit filed in any case other than the one before us.

The court also concluded that the principal was a "minister" for purposes of the ministerial exception, saying in part: 

although her formal title (“lay principal”) does not necessarily indicate a religious role, it is apparent from the record that plaintiff’s job duties entailed numerous religious functions in furtherance of the school’s Catholic mission.