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Sabatino v. Saint Aloysius Parish

March 7, 1996

KAREN SABATINO, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
SAINT ALOYSIUS PARISH, SAINT ALOYSIUS SCHOOL, AND ARCHDIOCESE OF NEWARK, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Essex County, whose opinion is reported at Before Judges Petrella and P.g. Levy. The opinion of the court was delivered by Petrella, P.j.a.d.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Petrella

The opinion of the court was delivered by

PETRELLA, P.J.A.D.

Plaintiff Karen Sabatino appeals from a summary judgment entered in the Law Division dismissing her complaint against defendants St. Aloysius Parish, St. Aloysius School, and the Archdiocese of Newark. Ms. Sabatino was the principal of a parochial elementary school in the Archdiocese of Newark, where she served under a series of one-year contracts.

The relevant facts are summarized in Judge Fuentes' opinion. Sabatino v. St. Aloysius Parish, 280 N.J. Super. 185, 654 A.2d 1033 (Law Div. 1994). In a reorganization prompted by economic and pastoral considerations, the Archdiocese of Newark decided to close two schools and open a new school utilizing a building that formerly housed the school in which Sabatino had served as principal. A parish that formerly did not have its own school was assigned to co-sponsor the new school, along with the two parishes whose schools had been closed.

Although considered for the position, Sabatino was not hired as principal of the new school. Instead, the church authorities selected a nun, asserting, among various reasons, that her status was beneficial in carrying out the religious mission of the parochial school. Sabatino felt aggrieved and brought suit, claiming breach of contract, gender discrimination, and related torts. Judge Fuentes dismissed Sabatino's complaint essentially on abstention grounds, ruling that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment precluded a civil court from second-guessing a church's religiously motivated employment decision regarding a "ministerial" position. Alternatively, the Judge concluded that there were no material issues of fact as to Sabatino's claim that she was entitled to the position because of an employment contract.

We affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Fuentes in his oral decision and in his reported decision. We add only the following comments.

The United States Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 613, 91 S. Ct. 2105, 29 L. Ed. 2d 745, 756 (1971), recognized that religious instruction "is part of the total educational process" and that parochial schools are "an integral part of the religious mission of the Catholic Church. ... In short, parochial schools involve substantial religious activity and purpose." Id. at 615-616, 91 S. Ct. at 2112-2113, 29 L. Ed. 2d at 757; accord N.L.R.B. v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 440 U.S. 490, 501-502, 99 S. Ct. 1313, 1319-1320, 59 L. Ed. 2d 533, 541-542 (1979) ("Religious authority necessarily pervades the [parochial] school system.").

Moreover, the role of the principal at the new school was "ministerial" *fn1 within the context of religious doctrine and polity. See Elmora Hebrew Ctr., Inc. v. Fishman, 215 N.J. Super. 589, 595-597, 522 A.2d 497 (App. Div. 1987) (noting that rabbi's functions were "intimately tied to questions of religious doctrine"). *fn2 The principal is in charge of students' religious education; she supervises the teachers, plays a significant role in curriculum development, is liaison between the school and the religious community, and is the guiding force behind the school's spiritual mission. Her functions are more than merely financial and logistic. Thus, we agree with Judge Fuentes that the principal of a parochial school does perform a "ministerial" function. Sabatino v. St. Aloysius Parish, supra (280 N.J. Super. at 19).

Judge Fuentes' decision is further supported by Black v. St. Bernadette Congregation of Appleton, 121 Wis. 2d 560, 360 N.W.2d 550 (Wis. Ct. App. 1984). In Black, a parochial school principal was fired during the term of his one-year contract, although the church did not follow the procedure for termination set forth in the contract. The breach of contract action was dismissed on the ground that the plaintiff had been fired "for ecclesiastical reasons." Id. at 552. The appellate court affirmed, noting that "Wisconsin courts lack jurisdiction to review the merits of a termination based on ecclesiastical reasons" and that it is a question of law to determine whether the reasons were indeed ecclesiastical. Ibid. The appellate court agreed that the affidavits before the trial court were sufficient to establish that the church's reasons were ecclesiastical, namely that plaintiff was causing discord within the congregation. Id. at 553. Further, the court rejected plaintiff's claim (similar to that advanced by Sabatino in the instant appeal) that the stated ecclesiastical reason was a pretext. Ibid.

Significantly, for purposes of determining whether the reason for termination was an ecclesiastical reason, the court in Black explained how a school administrator could be imbued with religious status:

Because religious authority necessarily pervades a church operated school, personnel decisions affecting the school may involve ecclesiastical issues as much as decisions affecting other church employees. See NLRB v. Catholic Bishop, 440 U.S. 490, 502, 99 S. Ct. 1313, 1319, 59 L. Ed. 2d 533 (1979). Decisions affecting church school employees are not necessarily secular therefore, but must be considered as we would consider other church personnel decisions. [ Black v. St. Bernadette Congregation, supra (360 N.W.2d at 553).]

The Black court continued: "Matters of internal church government are at the core of ecclesiastical affairs and are not only administrative." Id. (citing Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 721-722, 96 S. Ct. 2372, 2386-2387, 49 L. Ed. 2d 151, 169-171 (1976)). Finally, Black held that when personnel action is conducted for "the good of the church," as perceived by the church itself, that action "is beyond the province of judicial review." Ibid. Accordingly, Judge Fuentes correctly determined that the position of a principal in a parochial school is a "ministerial" one and that selecting a nun to be the principal of the new school in this case was an ecclesiastical decision, thus necessitating judicial abstention.

Concluding that the First Amendment mandates judicial abstention, however, does not end the court's inquiry. The court's task then is to review the employment manual or contract to determine whether the parties expressly waived their right to withhold disputes from the courts. For example, parties may contract that employment disputes will be resolved by the courts. Welter v. Seton Hall University, 128 N.J. 279, 296, 608 A.2d 206 (1992); Alicea v. New Brunswick Theological Seminary, 128 N.J. 303, 315, 608 A.2d 218 (1992). There is nothing in either Sabatino's last employment contract or in the Co-Sponsorship Guidelines (which discusses the new school's policies and procedures) that speaks to the adjudication of disputes, let alone that ...


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