Monday, April 23, 2007

High Court Passes on Church Autonomy Case

The Supreme Court today denied cert in Petruska v. Gannon University (No. 06-985), leaving in place a correct Third Circuit opinion applying the Church Autonomy Doctrine to dismiss a sex discrimination claim against a Roman Catholic university.

One manifestation of the Church Autonomy Doctrine is Title VII's "ministerial exception." By its terms, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 exempts religious employers from its ban on religious discrimination. Above and beyond this, the courts have created the ministerial exception, which deprives the civil magistrate of the power to review a religious organization's decisions regarding clergy and their equivalents.

The first Third Circuit panel to adjudicate the case declined to embrace the ministerial exception. After the author of the majority opinion died, the court granted rehearing before a new panel. The new panel agreed with seven sister circuits and embraced the ministerial exception. It is that opinion that the Supreme Court let stand today.

The unsuccessful petitioner was represented by Prof. Marci Hamilton, author of God and the Gavel, a book deemed a "poorly executed rant" by none other than Prof. Douglas Laycock, one of the most prominent and thoughtful church-state legal academics in the country.