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Pardue v. Center City Consortium Schools of the Archdiocese of Washington

June 9, 2005


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CA-5459-02). (Hon. James E. Boasberg, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell, Associate Judge

Argued May 12, 2005

Before FARRELL and GLICKMAN, Associate Judges, and MOTLEY, Associate Judge, Superior Court of the District of Columbia.*fn1

Appellant Kathleen Pardue ("Pardue" or "appellant") sued the Archdiocese of Washington and others (collectively "the Archdiocese") under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (the DCHRA) alleging discrimination and retaliation based on race.*fn2 Pardue contended that the Archdiocese had unlawfully terminated her contract as principal of the St. Francis Xavier elementary school in the District. The termination was alleged to be part of a campaign by Mary Anne Stanton, the Executive Director of the Center City Consortium Schools of the Archdiocese of Washington, Inc., and others, "to eliminate Caucasian principals and replace them with less-qualified African-American [p]rincipals." The trial court, Judge Boasberg, after allowing substantial but limited discovery, dismissed the complaint primarily on First Amendment grounds, concluding that the Free Exercise Clause - specifically the "ministerial exception" (as in religious "minister") recognized by a large number of courts - bars civil courts from adjudicating employment discrimination claims by ministers and similar persons exercising religious functions against the religious institution employing them.*fn3 For the reasons that follow, we uphold the decision of the trial court.


St. Francis Xavier is one of several Roman Catholic elementary schools making up The Center City Consortium Schools of the Archdiocese of Washington, Inc. The Consortium is a non-profit corporation organized for charitable, religious, and educational purposes. Formed by the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., it linked together, at the time, eight Catholic inner-city elementary schools to coordinate academics and curriculum, including religious instruction, finances, development, recruitment, community relations, professional development, facilities, procurement and personnel for member schools.

Ms. Pardue served as the principal of St. Francis Xavier School from mid-1996 until January 18, 2002, when, according to the complaint, she was forced to resign to avoid being terminated immediately and not receiving the remaining payments on her one-year contract. In her lawsuit, she alleged that when she inquired why she was effectively being fired, she was told that it was "because of alleged poor enrollment numbers and lack of leadership skills," but that the real reason was her race as a Caucasian. (She alleged in particular that her replacement was a non-Catholic African-American less qualified and with significantly less experience.) The Archdiocese moved to dismiss the lawsuit principally on the ground that the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment deprived the court of subject matter jurisdiction over what essentially was an ecclesiastical dispute. Factually, the Archdiocese asserted that the reasons why Pardue had been asked to resign included her "lack of commitment to a full program of regular religious instruction" at the school and her "poor working relationship with the pastor" of the school parish. But, it asserted, Pardue should not in any event be permitted to explore through civil discovery the ecclesiastical reasons supporting her termination.

Judge Boasberg initially ruled that, to help frame the issues more clearly for him, the parties could "conduct discovery (consisting of interrogatories, document requests, and requests for admission only) on the limited topic of the role and position of the principal of St. Francis Xavier School." After receiving and considering these materials, the judge concluded in a carefully written opinion that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Pardue's claims of discrimination and retaliation under the DCHRA. These claims, he ruled, were barred by the First Amendment, in particular the "ministerial exception" to the applicability of federal anti-discrimination statutes first articulated in McClure v. Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553 (5th Cir. 1972), and followed by numerous courts since then. As explained by the District of Columbia Circuit, the exception holds that "the Free Exercise Clause exempts the selection of clergy from Title VII and similar statutes and, as a consequence, precludes civil courts from adjudicating employment discrimination suits by ministers against the church or religious institution employing them." EEOC v. Catholic Univ. of Am., 317 U.S. App. D.C. 343, 349, 83 F.3d 455, 461 (1996). Pointing out that the exception, as applied by the courts, "encompasses all employees of a religious institution, whether ordained or not, whose primary functions serve its spiritual and pastoral mission," id. at 351, 83 F.3d at 463, Judge Boasberg analyzed the position of principal at St. Francis Xavier applying the "primary duties" test - endorsed by both sides - enunciated in Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164 (4th Cir. 1985):

As a general rule, if the employee's primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship, he or she should be considered "clergy." This approach necessarily requires a court to determine whether a position is important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church.

Id. at 1168 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The judge cited documentary evidence that the Catholic schools in the Archdiocese have a "pervasive religious mission" and that "the principal of each school has a significant religious and spiritual role in furthering that mission." He noted also Pardue's admission that "the . . . school is operated in accordance with the teachings and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church as delineated and set forth by the Ordinary of Washington," and that "she was responsible for hiring teachers who could teach the Catholic courses . . . [and] made certain that students attended mass pursuant to Archdiocesan policy and guidelines." In sum, the judge concluded:

[T]he principal, along with the pastor [of St. Francis Xavier parish], is the person who leads the school, the person who communicates the school's message to the faculty, staff, students and parents. Given the role the schools play in the Archdiocese and the role the principal plays at the school, it is clear that [Pardue's] "position is important to the spiritual mission of the church" . . . and that her "primary duties consist of teaching [and] spreading the faith." Indeed, the selection of [Pardue] to be principal of the school "places the imprimatur of the church upon that person as a worthy Spiritual leader." Given [Pardue's] role, the Court finds that she fits within the ministerial exception, thus depriving the Court of subject matter jurisdiction to consider [her claims under the DCHRA]. [Citations omitted].


Judge Boasberg noted that this court "has not directly considered the existence or scope of the 'ministerial exception.'" While that is true especially as to the scope of the exception - i.e., who, other than an actual clergy person, may be barred from challenging an employment decision - the court has all but expressly adopted the exception in previous cases where actual ministers and pastors challenged their termination or other adverse actions affecting their employment. Thus, in United Methodist Church, Baltimore Annual Conference v. White, 571 A.2d 790 (D.C. 1990), we relied significantly on the exposition of First Amendment principles in Rayburn, supra, when we explained:

[t]he right to choose a minister without judicial intervention "underlies the well-being of religious community, for perpetuation of a church's existence may depend upon those whom it selects to preach its values, teach its message, and interpret its doctrines both to its own membership and the world at large." Any attempt by the civil courts to limit the church's choice of its ...

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