The Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled that the “ministerial exception rule” bars a church music director from suing the Archdiocese of Boston for alleged harassment.
Alessendrinia Menard was the music director at Saint Mary’s Parish in Franklin, Massachusetts for eighteen years.
Before leaving her job with the parish, she filed a complaint against her employer with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. In her complaint, Menard alleged that she was subjected to harassment due to her age and gender.
The complaint was rejected by the commission in 2016 because their investigation found no probable cause for Menard’s claims.
Undeterred, Menard filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Boston in Superior Court. Her case was dismissed by the court on the basis of an affirmative defense known as the “ministerial exception.”
The Superior Court’s ruling was upheld by the Appeals Court.
In its ruling, the Appeal Court discussed the ministerial exception.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees individuals the right to the free exercise of religion and prohibits the establishment of religion by the Federal government. The ministerial exception doctrine developed to protect those rights. As the United States Supreme Court has explained, “Since the passage of Title 7 VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . . . , and other employment discrimination laws, the Courts of Appeals have uniformly recognized the existence of a ‘ministerial exception,’ grounded in the First Amendment, that precludes application of such legislation to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.” HosannaTabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm’n, 565 U.S. 171, 188 (2012) (Hosanna-Tabor). The ministerial exception serves to prevent courts from “interfer[ing] with the internal governance of the church, [and] depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.” Id.
The court rejected Menard’s argument that the exception did not apply to her because she was only the music director and not a member of the clergy.
According to the court, music plays a key “role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission.”
Citing the Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. V. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm’m, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), the Appeals Court found that there is
“undisputed evidence . . . that music is an integral part of the celebration of Mass,” id., the court held that there was enough for the ministerial exception to bar the plaintiff’s claims where there was “no genuine dispute that . . . by playing the piano during services, [the plaintiff] furthered the mission of the church and helped convey its message to the congregants.” Id. at 177.
On these grounds, the complaint against the Archdiocese was dismissed.