Fifth Circuit Interprets Ministerial Exception Broadly in Case of First Impression

Last term the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the existence of the ministerial exception to many of the federal employment discrimination laws. This week, the Fifth Circuit took up the application of the ministerial exception for the first time since the Supreme Court’s opinion in Hosanna-Tabor and applied the exception broadly.

Philip Cannata was the Music Director at St. John Nuemann Catholic Church in Austin, Texas. He oversaw the Music Department’s budget and expenditures, managed and maintained the sound systems at the church, music room and sanctuary and rehearsed with the choir and accompanied them on the piano during Mass while running the soundboard. After eleven years of service, his employment was terminated. He filed a lawsuit asserting age and disability discrimination claims under federal law. The church moved to dismiss the case and eventually moved for summary judgment arguing that the ministerial exception and the First Amendment’s establishment clause barred Cannata’s suit. The district court agreed with the church and dismissed the claims.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment for the church. Of particular importance to the Court’s conclusion was the evidence demonstrating the importance and integral part that music plays in a Catholic Mass. The uncontroverted evidence established that “the person who leads the must during [a Catholic] Mass is an integral part of Mass and a lay liturgical minister actively participating in the sacrament of the Eucharist’”. Based on this evidence, the Court held that there was no genuine issue of fact that “Cannata played an integral role in the celebration of Mass and that by playing the piano during services, Cannata further the mission of the church and helped convey its message to congregants.” As such, Cannata’s claims fell within the ministerial exception and were barred.

This case is significant in demonstrating the potential breadth of the ministerial exception. Cannata was not ordained, did not conduct Mass, deliver a sermon or write the music or lyrics for the ceremony. He had no religious education, training or experience to be considered a minister and had no direct interaction with the parishioners. He worked only in the evenings and on weekends and all of the liturgical responsibilities belonging to his predecessor were reassigned to another individual precisely because he lacked the requisite education, training and experience. Cannata contended that he did nothing more than sit at the piano facing away from the congregation and play music.

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