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Ministerial Exception Applied to Music Director with No Religious Training

According to the ruling, Philip Cannata, who became music director at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Austin, Texas, in 1998, had no liturgical responsibilities because he “lacked the requisite education, training and experience.”

October 29, 2012
Related Topics: Disabilities, Labor Law, Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Termination, Latest News
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A Catholic church's music director who has no religious training nevertheless falls under the ministerial exception to federal discrimination law and therefore cannot pursue age and disability discrimination charges based on the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on this issue earlier this year, says a federal appeals court.

In its January ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al., the U.S. Supreme Court held that a teacher at a church school who also taught secular subjects fell under the ministerial exception to federal discrimination law and could not pursue a charge under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Based on that ruling, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans held in its ruling Oct. 24 in Philip Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin; St. John Neumann Catholic Church that this also applied to Cannata.

According to the ruling, Cannata, who became music director at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Austin, Texas, in 1998, had no liturgical responsibilities because he "lacked the requisite education, training and experience."

After he was fired in 2007, he filed suit against the church and diocese, charging his termination violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A three-judge panel, in upholding a lower court ruling, held Cannata could not pursue his claims based on the high court's Hosanna-Tabor ruling because music is an integral part of the Mass service.

"The crux of Cannata's argument is that he merely played the piano at Mass, and that his only responsibilities were keeping the books, running the sound system, and doing custodial work, none of which was religious in nature," said the ruling. "However, the performance of secular duties, the Supreme Court has said, may not be overemphasized in the context of the ministerial exception."

The court said there was evidence the church's music director "provides a major service by overseeing the planning and coordination of the church's music program, fostering the active participation of the 'liturgical assembly' in singing and promoting the various musicians — choir members, psalmists, cantors and organists — all of whom play instruments in service of the liturgy. Thus, the person who leads the music during Mass is an integral part of Mass and 'a lay liturgical minister actively participating in the sacrament of the Eucharist,'" said the court, in quoting the defendant's argument

There is "no genuine dispute that Cannata played an integral role in the celebration of Mass and that by playing the piano during services, Cannata furthered the mission of the church and helped convey its message to the congregants," said the ruling, in upholding dismissal of the case.

Judy Greenwald writes for Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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