First Impression Case: Fifth Circuit Rules on Ministerial Exception to Employment Discrimination Law

/ 11/10/2012

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the dismissal of an employment discrimination lawsuit because it found that the ministerial exception applied. This exception bars employment discrimination lawsuits brought by ministers against their churches. Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin, No. 11-51151 (5th Cir. Oct. 24, 2012), available at


The plaintiff worked as the church’s music director and played the organ at church services. After he was fired, he sued for age and disability discrimination. The district court dismissed the lawsuit.


The First Amendment provides that Congress shall not make a law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. This precludes application of employment discrimination legislation to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers. The Court focused on the standard set out in a recent United States Supreme Court ruling in a similar matter. The Court concluded that the ministerial exception applied because the plaintiff played an integral role in the celebration of Mass and furthered the mission of the church with his activities. The Court affirmed the lower court’s judgment.


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