Federal Appeals Court Applies Ministerial Exception Broadly – Even to Secular Employer

The former hospital chaplain at New York Methodist Hospital (NYMH) can’t pursue his race and religious discrimination claims, because a divided federal appeals court has ruled he is barred by the “ministerial exception.”   The ruling is troubling, because NYMH is only historically connected to the United Methodist Church and has emphasized its secular nature for years.

Marlon Penn worked at New York Methodist Hospital from 2004 and 2011 as a Duty Chaplain. In September 2010, Penn filed an administrative complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights, alleging his bosses failed to promote him because of race and religion.  The Commission dismissed the complaint.  Then, in late 2011, the hospital terminated him, purportedly because he made sexually inappropriate comments to a resident chaplain and other instances of misconduct.

Penn, however, claimed that the real reason for his termination was race discrimination, religious discrimination, and retaliation for filing his administrative complaint. He sued in federal district court in New York.

In July 2015, the district court granted summary judgment to the hospital and other defendants based on the ministerial exception. This exception provides that religious-based employers should have the autonomy to hire and fire religious-based employees without government intervention. In other words, under this concept religious employers can fire employees and not be subject to employment discrimination lawsuits.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court and sided with the defendants in Penn v. New York Methodist Hospital. Writing for the majority, Judge Victor A. Bolden reasoned even though the hospital had become a secular institution, “the hospital’s Department of Pastoral Care has retained a critical aspect of that religious identity in order to provide religious services to its patients.”

However, Judge Christopher Droney dissented. He explained that there are two “distinct requirements” for an employer to receive the benefit of the ministerial exception: (1) the plaintiff must a minister or religious employee and (2) the defendant-employer must be a religious institution.

While Penn was a chaplain and, thus, a religious employee, NYMH is not a religious institution. Droney pointed out that “since at least the 1970s, the hospital has shed almost all of its religious character.”

He added that “neither Methodist doctrine nor Methodist Church leadership have a significant role at NYMH.” Penn is a religious employee of a secular employer.  Droney pointed out that clearly secular hospitals may be able to fire chaplains at will based on this ruling.

Droney’s reasoning is sound. A secular hospital should not be able to invoke the ministerial exception, an exception that often devolves into a license to discriminate. Unfortunately, the decision is part of a trend to apply the doctrine broadly.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *