Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Suspended Priest's Age Discrimination Claim Dismissed Under Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine

In In re Roman Catholic Diocese of El Paso, (TX App., May 17, 2021), a Texas appellate court by a vote of 2-1 held that under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, Texas civil courts lack jurisdiction over an age discrimination and fraud case brought by a Catholic priest against his diocese.  The suit was brought when the diocese reduced payments being made to the priest who was placed on administrative leave after criminal allegations were lodged against him. The majority said in part:

The Diocese contends in this mandamus that a civil court cannot adjudicate whether Bishop Seitz exercised his discretion to reduce Olivas’s payment of decent support in a reasonable manner without inextricably involving itself in the governance of the Catholic Church. We agree and conclude that for both of the asserted claims in this case, that the fact finder would have to judge the stated rationale of Bishop Seitz’s reduction of payments which is grounded under the church’s canon law.

Chief Justice Rodriguez dissented on several grounds. He said in part:

I believe that employment discrimination laws such as the age discrimination provision of Texas Commission on Human Rights Act ... may be constitutionally enforced against religious entity employers, provided that the employee bringing the claim is not one of the defendant’s “ministers.”...

[T]he wrinkle in this case is that while Olivas retains the title of priest, he is by the Church’s own assessment a priest in name only. Seitz admitted that Olivas does not and cannot perform any ministerial duties for the Diocese due to Olivas’ suspension of faculties.