Employment Law Alert

Illinois Supreme Court Adopts Religious Ministerial Exemption

Mar 16, 2021

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We’ve written about court decisions applying judicial doctrines under the First Amendment to bar some types of employment claims against religious entities. The Illinois Supreme Court has now weighed in.

Extracurricular activities

We have already told you about Mary Rehfield (see the article nearby), who was employed by the Diocese of Joliet as principal at St. Raphael Catholic School, in Naperville, Illinois. The school is operated by St. Raphael Parish, an agent of the diocese. The principal reported to Father Daniel Bachner, an ordained Roman Catholic priest and the parish’s pastor.

Rehfield was let go in June 2017 after some controversy spawned by threatening e-mails from a student’s father, which led to a police report, publicity, and eventually a meeting with angry parents and the school administrators, including Rehfield. (For all the facts and background of Rehfield’s case, see “Illinois Supreme Court Confirms Retaliatory Discharge Applies Only to At-Will Employees.”)

Rehfield claims she was terminated because (1) she reported the threatening conduct to the police and (2) the diocese made her the scapegoat for an embarrassing situation. She sued, alleging violations of the Illinois Whistleblower Act (IWA) and also common-law retaliatory discharge. The circuit court held both claims were barred by the doctrine of ecclesiastic abstention, which provides Illinois civil courts may not interfere with certain types of decisions by a religious organization.

Curricula

On appeal, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the dismissal of Rehfield’s complaint, purely on the basis of ecclesiastical abstention. The supreme court granted her petition for an appeal. (This article addresses the IWA claim, while the retaliatory discharge claim is covered in the other article.)

The IWA protects employees who call attention to improper activities by either (1) reporting the illegal conduct to a government agency or (2) refusing to participate in the actions. Rehfield claimed she was retaliated against for reporting an irate and threatening parent’s conduct to law enforcement. In ruling on the claim, the supreme court plowed new ground.

Admissions standards

First, the diocese argued Rehfield didn’t qualify as a “whistleblower” under the IWA because she was reporting to authorities the illegal activities of a third party (the student’s father) rather than her employer. Not so, held the supreme court. Quite simply, Section 15 of the IWA states it applies to employees retaliated against by their employers for reporting criminal activity to government or law enforcement agencies. “There are no other requirements or exceptions written into the” IWA, said the court. Therefore, her claim wasn’t barred simply because she was reporting improper conduct by someone other than her employer.

Nevertheless, the supreme court held Rehfield’s IWA claim was properly dismissed under the ministerial exception. In so holding, the court reviewed a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases under the First Amendment:

[The cases highlight] two separate, albeit intertwined, judicially created doctrines . . . —the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and the ministerial exception. The former provides that civil courts may not determine the correctness of a religious entity’s interpretation of canonical text or religious polity. The latter is a more focused subsidiary of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which “allows religious organizations to select and control their ministers without judicial review or government interference.”

Ministerial

Evidence in the case showed Rehfield as school principal was tasked with, among other things, maintaining a school atmosphere that was “identifiable as Catholic” and establishing an instructional program that included religious education. The job requirements included being “a committed, practicing Catholic,” abiding by the diocesan handbook, and being committed to nurturing the school’s Catholic identity.

Consequently, the court said, “There is sufficient evidence in the record to conclude that [Rehfield] was a minister.” Further, ruling on the issue for the first time, the court followed the federal jurisprudence and ruled her IWA claim was barred by the ministerial exception. Rehfield v. Diocese of Joliet, 2021 IL 125656 (Feb. 4, 2021).

Lessons learned

Rehfield’s case confirms Illinois courts will apply the same judicial doctrines federal courts have developed under the First Amendment to shield religious institutions from court oversight in certain circumstances. But the ministerial exception, which the court relied on here, applies only when the employee performs ministerial duties, and there’s no rigid formula to determine whether that’s true. Job titles aren’t conclusive. More telling are facts indicating the employee’s role was to convey the religious entity’s message and carry out its mission. Even though Rehfield’s employment contract described her as a “lay principal,” she was charged with leading a Catholic school, which included ensuring its Catholic identity and mission. That means the diocese’s motives in terminating her employment weren’t subject to court review.

Steve Brenneman HeadshotThis article was written by Steven L. Brenneman who is the Chair of the Employment Law Group at Fox Swibel, and an editor of the Illinois Employment Law Letter.

He can be reached at [email protected].

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