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Hospital once linked to church and still giving pastoral care may invoke ministerial exception

By Nicole D. Prysby, J.D.

A hospital historically connected to the United Methodist Church and still providing religious services through a pastoral care department may invoke the ministerial exception to dismiss discrimination claims, held the Second Circuit. Although the hospital had shed much of its Methodist heritage and held itself out as a secular facility, the particular department at issue provided pastoral services. The employee who filed the claims was a chaplain who performed ministry tasks. Therefore, the ministerial exception was applicable (Penn v. New York Methodist Hospital, March 7, 2018, Bolden, V.).

Background. The employee worked as a Duty Chaplain for NYMH. NYMH was founded by a Methodist minister and was the first Methodist hospital in the world. In 1974, however, it amended its Certificate of Incorporation to remove all reference to its “Church related character” and “relationship with The United Methodist Church.” The current Articles of Incorporation do not mention religious activity. NYMH also promotes its secular nature, referring to itself as a secular institution on its webpage and in printed materials. But the hospital also promotes its Methodist history and its by-laws require that it select a President with the advice and counsel of the local Methodist bishop. The hospital’s Department of Pastoral Care has a mission of providing an “ecumenical program of pastoral care” to patients and to “see that the needs of the whole person—mind and spirit as well as body—are met.” Chaplains in the department counsel patients and the department is integrated into the hospital’s non-pastoral work.

The employee provided chaplain services, distributed Bibles, and performed other ministry tasks. He filed a complaint, alleging failure to promote because of race and religion. According to the employer, his performance at work then began to deteriorate and he was fired. Thereafter, he brought claims under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and state and local anti-discrimination laws. NYMH moved for summary judgment, arguing that the claims were blocked by the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment. The district court granted the motion and the employee appealed.

Ministerial exception. The court found that although it was a close question, the district court had correctly applied the ministerial exception. The employee’s argument was that although NYMH was once a religious institution, it had taken steps to distance itself from that heritage. In addition, its Methodist identity did not infuse its performance of its secular duties. But the court found that the particular department at issue, the Department of Pastoral Care, operated with more religious characteristics and had retained critical aspects of religious identity in order to provide religious services to its patients, such as religious rituals. And because the employee performed religious services for NYMH, he served the department’s religious purpose.

Establishment Clause issues. The court found that any evaluation of the employee’s claims would require examination of whether NYMH’s explanation of its failure to promote and termination was pretextual. Some of the legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons cited by NYMH for its actions included complaints about a hymn selected by the employee, improperly completing a referral card, which resulted in a patient dying without receiving last rites, and inappropriate counseling. To determine if these reasons were pretextual, a jury would have to determine how religious services should be conducted, the importance of last rites, compare pastoral skills of other chaplains, and make decisions on other issues that are religious in character. As a court cannot take sides in a religious matter, the case was correctly dismissed.

Dissent. Judge Droney dissented, arguing the majority set the bar too low for employers to claim religious-based immunity, given that the hospital had only minimal vestiges of its religious background. Under the ministerial exception, the employer must be a religious institution; Judge Droney would have held that NYMH is not. While the hospital was religiously-affiliated for many years, by the 1970s, it was no longer a religious institution. It had almost entirely eliminated its ties with the Methodist Church and there was no evidence that Methodist religious doctrines guided its operations. In addition, NYMH held itself out to the public as a secular institution and its mission statement describes it as a non-sectarian institution. Because the focus should be on the religious nature of the employer, not the religious nature of the services performed by the employee, the exception should not apply.