January 27, 2005

A Federal Trial Court Dismisses a Nun-Priest Sexual Harassment Claim



Thursday, Jan. 27, 2005

Last week, a federal district court in Erie, Pennsylvania, ruled on an unusual sexual harassment claim by a former nun against the employer of a priest.

Lynette Petruska sued Gannon University, alleging that she had been harassed by then-University President Monsignor David Rubino. But Judge Sean J. McLaughlin held that, due to the "ministerial exception," a religious institution cannot be sued under federal anti-discrimination laws.

The "ministerial exception" -- widely observed by courts in the United States - puts religious employees outside the protections of the anti-discrimination laws, on the broad ground that if the courts heard such cases, they would unduly interfere with the internal procedures of religious institutions.

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit - which will hear Petruska's appeal - ought to reverse the trial court's decision, and allow her case to go forward. Not only is the ministerial exception itself problematic, it is especially problematic in this case.

The Ministerial Exception Wrongly Puts Courts in the Shoes of the Legislature

First, the ministerial exception is generally problematic. It is a court-created exception, but any such exception - if it comes at all -- should come through the legislature, not the courts. The ministerial exception is actually a judicially crafted accommodation for religion.

The legislature has the power to convene hearings at which it can listen to wide-ranging expert testimony, and engage in an extended study of the issue. They are institutionally crafted to be able to ask the larger questions about the public good.

Posted by kshaw at January 27, 2005 07:38 AM