Late last week Judge Douglas H. Wilkins of Norfolk Superior Court ruled Thursday that Fontbonne Academy — an all-girls Catholic high school in Milton, MA — unlawfully discriminated against Matthew Barrett when they rescinded their offer to employ him as the school’s food services director after he listed his husband as his emergency contact. The school will be on the hook to pay damages to Barrett for lost wages and compensatory damages for discrimination, though a hearing on that has not yet been scheduled. If past judgments are any measure, though, it could be a healthy sum of money.
The judge’s decision, a major step toward protecting Church workers, is based on two important facts:
- that he suffered discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as well as gender
- that religious exemption did not apply because the school does not limit “membership, enrollment, or participation” to Catholics and only required that members of the administration and theology faculty be Catholic
The decision went further, asserting that “As an educational institution, Fontbonne retains control over its mission and message. It is not forced to allow Barrett to dilute that message, where he will not be a teacher, minister, or spokesman for Fontbonne and has not engaged in public advocacy of same-sex marriage.”
Fontbonne has not indicated whether or not it plans to appeal the ruling.
As a ruling at the state level, the decision sets legal precedent in Massachusetts, but may not be immediately applicable to similar cases in other states. Nevertheless, the decision may have broad implications for the pursuit of justice for all Church workers.
It is interesting to note that Barrett’s attorney claimed (and the judge agreed) that Barrett had been discriminated against on the basis of BOTH sexual orientation and gender. The decision reads, in part, “It is clear that, because he is a male, he suffered gender discrimination when he was denied employment for marrying a person whom a female could have married without suffering the same consequences.” While same-sex marriage is now the “law of the land,” sexual orientation is not a protected status in every state. This decision may open the door for Church employees in those states, who have been fired for being in a same sex marriage, to fight back on the basis of gender discrimination.
But this decision goes beyond the issue of same sex marriage and touches on important issues like what exactly constitutes a minister in the Church.
In a 2012 decision, the US Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prevented the government from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to decide who was or wasn’t a minister within their tradition. The decision emboldened bishops in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Oakland, San Francisco, and Hawaii to write the language of “minister” or “ministry” into teacher contracts. That move was widely understood to be an attempt by those bishops to exempt themselves from discrimination and labor laws and sparking a heated debate about what functions and responsibilities actually constitute a minister within Catholic Church. While the Supreme Court decision was unanimous, there his hardly unanimous agreement in the Church about who is and isn’t a minister.
The decision in Massachusetts could reignite that debate.
In this case, the judge clearly found nothing within the food services director job description or duties that would lead him – or any reasonable person for that matter – to believe that Fontbonne’s leadership understood Barrett to be a minister.
Most Catholics agree, not all Church employees fall into the category of minister. That includes food service, custodial, and administrative support personnel, and some teachers, including those who aren’t teaching religion and those who are not Catholic. Moreover, many are convinced that forcing these employees to sign teacher-minister contracts is an unfair attempt by Church and school officials to protect themselves against discrimination laws and wrongful termination lawsuits that have put them on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past few years.
Thursday’s decision is a ray of hope for all Church workers, giving them more tools to fight back against wrongful terminations and once again raising important, unresolved questions about the fairness of teacher-minister contracts.