Conn. court: church can't be sued by ex-principal

Court Watch Posted on

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Monday that a former Catholic school principal cannot sue the Archdiocese of Hartford on claims she was wrongly fired for not retaliating against a student, who complained about sexual remarks allegedly made by a priest now accused of abusing children.

The high court unanimously overturned a lower court ruling in favor of Patricia Dayner, former principal of St. Hedwig's School in Naugatuck. Justices said Dayner's lawsuit against the archdiocese was barred under the "ministerial exception" to state courts' authority to decide employment cases. The exception is based on the First Amendment right to freedom of religion, and the right of religious organizations to control their own internal affairs.

But the state Supreme Court, in its first ruling on the issue, didn't ban all labor-related lawsuits against religious institutions. Justices adopted the view of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, which ruled in 2008 that courts can decide to step into church employment disputes based on the nature of the complaints and whether court action would intrude on churches' right to decide issues related to doctrine or internal governance.

Federal appeal courts have issued conflicting rulings in ministerial exception cases. The U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue later this year, when it hears a case involving a teacher at a church-run school in Michigan and decides whether ministerial exception applies to the Americans with Disabilities Act in cases where church workers are deemed secular, and not religious, employees.

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