Fifth Circuit Dismisses Music Director's Employment-Discrimination Suit Based on Ministerial Exception

In Philip Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin, a church music director alleged that he was terminated in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court decision and dismissed the suit based on the ministerial exception, which bars employment-discrimination suits by ministers against their churches. This appeal presents the first opportunity for the Fifth Circuit to address the ministerial exception in light of the US Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor.

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In Philip Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin, a church music director alleged that he was terminated in violation of the ADEA and ADA. The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court decision and dismissed the suit based on the ministerial exception, which bars employment-discrimination suits by ministers against their churches. This appeal presents the first opportunity for the Fifth Circuit to determine whether an employee is a minister within the meaning of the ministerial exception in light of the US Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor.

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Key Litigated Issues

In Philip Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin, the key litigated issue was whether a Music Director for a Catholic Church, who performed mostly secular duties and had no religious training, was a minister within the meaning of the ministerial exception rooted in the First Amendment.

 

Background

In 1998, Cannata became the Music Director at St. John Neumann Catholic Church. His duties included:

  • Overseeing the Music Department's:

    • budget; and

    • expenditures.

  • Managing the church sound systems.

  • Maintaining the sanctuary's:

    • sound equipment;

    • music room; and

    • music area.

  • Rehearsing with choir members and cantors.

  • Accompanying choir members and cantors on the piano during services while running the soundboard.

In August 2007, the parish pastor, Father Kirby Garner, fired Cannata. Cannata brought suit against the Catholic diocese and the church, alleging that his termination was in violation of the ADEA and the ADA. The church twice moved to dismiss on the basis that the ministerial exception barred Cannata's suit. Their first motion was denied by the district court because not enough evidence had been developed to determine whether the ministerial exception applied. After further discovery, the church refiled their motion to dismiss and also moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the second motion, dismissing the suit based on the ministerial exception. Cannata timely appealed.

 

Outcome

On October 24, 2012, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion affirming the judgment of the district court. The Fifth Circuit held that there is no genuine issue of material fact that the ministerial exception applies, and therefore the exception bars Cannata's suit.

This decision is noteworthy because it presents the first opportunity for the Fifth Circuit to determine whether an employee is a minister within the meaning of the ministerial exception in light of the recent Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor. In Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court:

  • Held, in a unanimous decision, that the ministerial exception rooted in the First Amendment barred an employment discrimination suit brought by a teacher and commissioned minister against her employer, a church and school.

  • Declined to adopt a rigid formula to determine whether an employee qualifies as a minister under the ministerial exception, instead favoring an all-things considered approach.

For more information on Hosanna-Tabor, see Legal Update, US Supreme Court Rules Ministerial Exception Bars Employment Discrimination Suit (www.practicallaw.com/7-517-2177).

In this case, Cannata's argument centered on the fact that:

  • He merely played the piano at Mass.

  • His only responsibilities were keeping the books, running the sound system and doing custodial work, none of which was religious in nature.

However, the court noted that in Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court held that the performance of secular duties may not be overemphasized in the context of the ministerial exception. The church centered their argument on the important role music plays in the celebration of Mass and produced evidence that the music director provides a major service by:

  • Overseeing the planning and coordination of the church's music program.

  • Fostering the active participation of the liturgical assembly in:

    • singing; and

    • promoting the various musicians.

The court agreed, noting that:

  • There is no genuine dispute that Cannata played an integral role in the celebration of Mass.

  • By playing the piano during services, Cannata:

    • furthered the mission of the church; and

    • helped convey its message to the congregants.

Notably, the court rejected Cannata's argument that the district court erred because it failed to find any relevance in his lack of religious training and his ostensibly purely-secular duties. Because he made unilateral, important decisions regarding the musical direction at Mass, the church considered him a minister. Even if this were not enough, Cannata played the piano at Mass. Undisputed evidence indicated that music is an integral part of the celebration of Mass. Consequently, Cannata played an important role in furthering the service and therefore helped convey the church’s message and carry out its mission.

The court further noted that:

  • Cannata's lack of formal training in Catholic doctrine is immaterial because the ministerial exception does not apply only to those who are ordained (Hosanna-Tabor).

  • Cannata's lack of religious training is insufficient to insulate him from the application of the ministerial exception, particularly because his ostensibly secular duties furthered the mission and message of the church at Mass.

Finally, Cannata disputed, and attempted to discredit, expert testimony introduced by the church, arguing that he could not have been a minister according to canon law because he failed to satisfy the three requirements necessary to become a lay ecclesial minister. The court found Cannata's attempts to discredit the expert testimony unpersuasive and without merit.

The court concluded that the church has the right to determine who will participate in religious ceremonies. Even if Cannata was just an accompanist, the church has established the importance of music to the celebration of Mass and Cannata's role in the service. Because Cannata performed an important function during the service, there is no genuine dispute that he played a role in furthering the mission of the church and conveying its message to its congregants.

 

Practical Implications

This decision demonstrates that an employee can be considered a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception even if he has no religious training and performs mostly secular duties. The all-things considered approach established in Hosanna-Tabor continues to be the standard that courts follow when determining whether an employee qualifies as a minister. In light of this decision, religious employers should consider whether their employees would qualify as ministers. Employers should also be aware that this decision is limited to employment discrimination suits. Employees who otherwise qualify as ministers may continue to bring other employment-related suits against their employers.

 

For more information about religious discrimination and accommodation, see Practice Note, Religious Discrimination and Accommodation under Title VII (www.practicallaw.com/0-518-2467).

 

Court Documents

 
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