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Petruska v. Gannon University

May 24, 2006

LYNETTE M. PETRUSKA, APPELLANT
v.
GANNON UNIVERSITY; THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF GANNON UNIVERSITY; WILLIAM I. ALFORD, II; ROBERT H. ALLSHOUSE; JOSEPH F. ALLISON; MICHAEL P. ALLISON, REV.; JAMES A. BALDAUF; L. SCOTT BARNARD; GEORGE J. BEHRINGER; ARNOLD E. BERGQUIST; LAWRENCE E. BRANDT, REV. MSGR.; ROBERT L. BRUGGER, REV. MSGR.; DONALD M. CARLSON; DANIEL C. CARNEVAL, D.O.; STEPHANIE DOMITROVICH, HON.; THOMAS L. DOOLIN; JAMES J. DURATZ; ANTOINE M. GARIBALDI; THOMAS C. GUELCHER; WILLIAM M. HILBERT, SR.; BRIAN J. JACKMAN; JAMES W. KEIM, JR.; MARY RITA KUHN, SR., SSJ; THOMAS J. LOFTUS; ANNE C. MCCALLION; JOSEPH T. MESSINA; MICHAEL J. NUTTALL; JOHN E. PAGANIE; DENISE ILLIG ROBISON; JAMES J. RUTKOWSKI, JR.; JAMES A. SCHAFFNER; HELEN M. SCHILLING, M.D., D.D.S.; JOHN M. SCHULTZ, VERY REV.; ROBERT J. SMITH, REV. MSGR.; LAWRENCE T. SPEICE, REV. MSGR.; WILLIAM C. SPRINGER; JAMES G. TOOHEY; DONALD W. TRAUTMAN, BISHOP; ANASTASIA VALIMONT, SR. SSJ; RICARDA VINCENT, SR. SSJ; MELVIN WITHERSPOON; ALL OTHER KNOWN AND UNKNOWN MEMBERS OF THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF GANNON UNIVERSITY DURING THE TENURE OF DONALD W. TRAUTMAN, AS MEMBERS OF THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF GANNON UNIVERSITY; DAVID RUBINO, MSGR., IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES; NICHOLAS ROUCH, REV., IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civ. Action No. 04-80). District Judge: Honorable Sean J. McLaughlin.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Becker, Circuit Judge.

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued October 20, 2005

Before: SMITH, BECKER, and NYGAARD, Circuit Judges.*fn1

OPINION OF THE COURT

The ministerial exception to Title VII, a doctrine adopted by numerous courts, exempts religious organizations from employment discrimination suits brought by ministers. Grounded in the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the United States Constitution, the ministerial exception was created to protect church autonomy and avoid entangling government in religious affairs. This case requires us to determine the reach of the ministerial exception in this Circuit.

We adopt a carefully tailored version of the ministerial exception. Where otherwise illegal discrimination is based on religious belief, religious doctrine, or the internal regulations of a church, the First Amendment exempts religious institutions from Title VII. In such cases, restricting a church's freedom to select its ministers would violate the Free Exercise Clause by inhibiting the church's ability to express its beliefs and put them into practice. Furthermore, questions about religious matters would pervade litigation, entangling courts in ecclesiastical matters and violating the Establishment Clause.

But where a church discriminates for reasons unrelated to religion, we hold that the Constitution does not foreclose Title VII suits. Employment discrimination unconnected to religious belief, religious doctrine, or the internal regulations of a church is simply the exercise of intolerance, not the free exercise of religion that the Constitution protects. Furthermore, in adjudicating suits that do not involve religious rationales for employment action, courts need not consider questions of religious belief, religious doctrine, or internal church regulation, a process that would violate the Establishment Clause by entangling courts in religious affairs.

Lynette Petruska brings suit against Gannon University, a Catholic institution, and various Gannon University officials (collectively, "Gannon"). She alleges in replete detail that Gannon, acting without any religious or ecclesiastical motivation, demoted her because she is a woman and because she opposed sexual harassment by Gannon officials.

The District Court granted Gannon's motion to dismiss Petruska's Title VII claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), reasoning that the ministerial exception barred these claims. As we explain below, a motion such as Gannon's is more properly dealt with under Rule 12(b)(6), which requires us to treat Petruska's allegations as true.*fn2 Accordingly, we assume that Gannon lacked a religious rationale for Petruska's demotion. We will therefore reverse the dismissal of her Title VII claims.

Petruska also asserts state law causes of action for breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, negligent supervision and retention, and civil conspiracy. The District Court dismissed these claims under Rule 12(b)(1), reasoning that the religion clauses removed jurisdiction. Reviewing the dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), we cannot conclude at this stage of litigation that these claims will require an examination of matters of faith, doctrine, or internal church regulation. Therefore, they are not barred by the religion clauses.*fn3

I.

The facts set forth below are drawn from Petruska's First Amended Complaint, which we must accept as true for purposes of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. Gannon University is a Catholic diocesan college located in Erie, Pennsylvania. Gannon hired Petruska as the university's Director of Social Concerns in July of 1997. Petruska was appointed permanent chaplain on July 1, 1999. She was to be the first female chaplain in Gannon's history.

Prior to accepting the position, Petruska sought assurances from Gannon's President, David Rubino, that she would not be replaced when Reverend Nicholas Rouch, a former Gannon chaplain who had left to study in Rome, returned, or when another male became available. She submits that she requested these assurances due to: (1) a policy or practice of gender discrimination at Gannon; (2) her knowledge that the position of chaplain had been promised to Rouch upon his return; and (3) the reputation of Bishop Donald Trautman, chair of Gannon's Board of Directors, for being unable to work with women and for removing women from leadership positions. Rubino assured Petruska that decisions regarding her tenure as chaplain would be based solely on her performance, and not her gender.

Petruska's role as chaplain was essentially that of a vice president. She served in a cabinet-level position on the President's staff and was co-chair of Gannon's Catholic Identity Task Force. Petruska's religious duties included holding prayer services and planning liturgies.

Several months after Petruska's appointment, in March of 2000, Rubino was forced to take a leave of absence when he was accused of having a sexual affair with a female subordinate. Rubino admitted the affair to various university officials. Thereafter, a different female employee accused Rubino of sexual harassment. Petruska was instrumental in bringing this claim to the attention of Trautman and Provost Thomas Ostrowski. Rubino resigned in May of 2000 and Ostrowski was appointed acting President. At Trautman's behest, Gannon then began a campaign to conceal Rubino's misconduct.

Petruska served on Gannon's Sexual Harassment Committee as the university was in the process of revising its sexual harassment policy. Although several of Gannon's lawyers advocated limiting the time period in which grievances could be filed, Petruska opposed this proposal, and her view ultimately prevailed. Petruska was also involved in preparing a report that criticized Gannon's discrimination and harassment policies. Despite a request from Gannon's President, the committee that prepared the report refused to modify portions criticizing the university.*fn4

In July of 2000, Ostrowski, then serving as acting President, met with Trautman, as well as Rouch, who had returned from Rome. Trautman told Ostrowski to place the Chaplain's Division under the control of Rouch, thereby making Petruska Rouch's subordinate. Ostrowski refused.

Ostrowski told Petruska about Trautman's plan and asked Petruska how she would respond if the Chaplain's Division were placed under Rouch's leadership. According to Petruska, Ostrowski conceded that the proposed action was being taken solely on the basis of Petruska's gender. Later, Ostrowski "made it clear to [Petruska] that Trautman and Rouch would never let her remain Chaplain at Gannon because of her gender."

In a January 2001 meeting, Ostrowski was informed that once a new President was appointed, Trautman intended to "clean house" by removing three high-ranking university officials, all of whom were female: Petruska, the Executive Director of Admissions, and the acting Provost. In May of 2001, Antoine Garibaldi was appointed President of Gannon. As President, Garibaldi required Rouch's approval of all important decisions that Petruska, as chaplain, ordinarily made.

In August of 2002, Garibaldi notified Petruska that he had decided to restructure the university, that she would be removed from the President's Staff, and that the Chaplain's Division would report to Rouch. The effect of the restructuring was to make Rouch Petruska's boss.

After a series of events convinced Petruska that she was on the verge of being fired, she tendered her resignation in October of 2002. After Petruska's resignation, Rouch repeatedly told Gannon students and staff that a woman would not be considered to replace Petruska as chaplain.

Petruska filed this action in the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania against Gannon University, Gannon's Board of Trustees, and various Gannon officials. Petruska asserted six claims, naming some or all of the defendants in the following counts: (1) Title VII sex discrimination; (2) Title VII retaliation; (3) fraudulent misrepresentation; (4) civil conspiracy; (5) breach of contract; and (6) negligent supervision and retention. The District Court granted Gannon's motion to dismiss the complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), concluding that the religion clauses barred adjudication of Petruska's claims.

II.

Federal courts have long struggled to balance state regulation and religious freedom. See, e.g., Serbian Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976). In the employment context, the source of this conflict is readily apparent. The government possesses a vital interest in promoting equality in the workplace, but this interest at times collides with the constitutional right of a religious institution to be free from excessive state interference.*fn5 In balancing these competing interests, several courts have applied the ministerial exception, which exempts religious institutions from Title VII suits brought by employees charged with ministerial duties.

In McClure v. Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553, 555 (5th Cir. 1972), the seminal case on the ministerial exception, a female officer of the Salvation Army alleged that she received a lower salary and fewer benefits than male employees, and that she was discharged for complaining of these disparities. The Fifth Circuit held that the First Amendment barred the former officer's claim, stating:

The relationship between an organized church and its ministers is its lifeblood. The minister is the chief instrument by which the church seeks to fulfill its purpose. Matters touching this relationship must necessarily be recognized as of prime ecclesiastical concern.

Id. at 558-59.

Seven federal circuits now recognize the ministerial exception.*fn6 Six have held that the exception applies regardless of whether the motive for the discrimination is religious in nature.*fn7 In evaluating whether a particular employee's suit is subject to the ministerial exception, the essential question is whether the employee's "primary functions" serve the "spiritual and pastoral mission" of a church. E.E.O.C. v. Catholic Univ. of Am., 83 F.3d 455, 463 (D.C. Cir. 1986).*fn8

Courts have derived the ministerial exception both through direct constitutional analysis and by applying the doctrine that ambiguous statutes must be interpreted to avoid significant constitutional risks. The Fourth Circuit determined that Title VII applies by its clear language to ministerial employment decisions. See Rayburn v. Gen. Conf. of Seventh- Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164, 1165-67 (4th Cir. 1985). The Court therefore reached the direct constitutional question and held that the religion clauses bar employment suits by ministers. See id. at 1165-72; see also Scharon, 929 F.2d at 361-63. McClure, however, applied the constitutional avoidance doctrine and reasoned that Title VII does not apply unambiguously to the hiring and firing of ministers. See 460 F.2d at 560-61.

Courts have also derived the ministerial exception from different constitutional provisions. Some have concluded that the Free Exercise Clause commands the exception, whereas others have opined that the exception is rooted in both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause.*fn9

Our survey of Court of Appeals decisions has revealed three explanations of why the Constitution may require the ministerial exception. We delineate these rationales now and later consider whether they apply to this case. First, some courts have articulated a "government scrutiny" rationale, which holds that the ministerial exception is necessary to avoid government probing or examination of a church's affairs.*fn10 The "government scrutiny" rationale is based on the Establishment Clause, which commands the government to avoid entanglement in religious matters.*fn11

Second, some courts have advanced a "selection of clergy" rationale. Under this theory, religious institutions should be free to select their own ministers, and the government should have no role in this process. Whereas the "government scrutiny" rationale focuses on the process of judicial inquiry, the "selection of clergy" rationale aims to prevent the government from controlling actual employment decisions.*fn12 While our sister circuits have grounded the "selection of clergy" argument in both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause,*fn13 it appears to flow more naturally from the Free Exercise Clause, because it focuses on the right of a church to put its beliefs into practice through its choice of ministers.

Finally, some courts have based the ministerial exception on an "inquiry into religious doctrine" rationale. Under this justification, the ministerial exception is necessary to prevent courts from resolving religious questions, which lie beyond judicial competence and authority. The Eighth Circuit has opined that "to review [ministerial employment] decisions would require the courts to determine the meaning of religious doctrine and canonical law." Scharon, 929 F.2d at 363.*fn14 The "inquiry into religious doctrine" rationale is more narrow than the "government scrutiny" rationale. The "government scrutiny" rationale is concerned with any intrusion into the internal affairs of a church, regardless of whether the government intrudes in a manner that requires it to resolve religious questions. The "inquiry into religious doctrine" rationale has been framed both in Free Exercise and Establishment Clause terms.*fn15

This Court has not had occasion in prior cases to adopt or reject the ministerial exception. In two cases, however, we have considered employment claims brought against religious organizations by non-ministerial employees. In Little v. Wuerl, 929 F.2d 944, 946 (3d Cir. 1991), a Catholic school refused to rehire a teacher because she remarried without following the proper canonical process to validate her second marriage. We concluded that §§ 702 and 703(e)(1) of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-1 and 2000e-2(e)(1), exempt "conduct [that] does not conform to [religious] mores." Id. at 945. Therefore, we held that the school could decline to rehire the plaintiff on the basis of her remarriage. Id. at 951.

The ministerial exception did not apply in Little both because the plaintiff was not a ministerial employee and because she was discharged on the basis of religion, thus triggering statutory exemptions under Title VII. Nonetheless, we did mention the ministerial exception in dicta: "[C]courts have consistently found that Title VII does not apply to the relationship between ministers and the religious organizations that employ them, even where discrimination is alleged on the basis of race or sex." Id. at 947 (citing McClure and Rayburn).

In Geary v. Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish School, 7 F.3d 324 (3d Cir. 1993), a teacher brought suit against a parochial school under the ADEA. Like Little, Geary involved a non-ministerial employee. However, whereas the plaintiff in Little brought a claim for religious discrimination, the plaintiff in Geary sued for age discrimination. Id. at 328. Specifically, the plaintiff contended that she was fired due to her age, while the school asserted that she was fired for marrying a divorced man. Id. at 326. We concluded that the plaintiff's suit did not "present a significant risk" of infringing the First Amendment. Id. at 331.

With these precedents in mind, we turn to Petruska's claims, and the procedural posture in which they come to us.

III.

The District Court dismissed Petruska's claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). While some courts consider the ministerial exception to be jurisdictional in nature, and therefore view a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) as the proper mechanism for asserting the exception,*fn16 other courts opine that where the exception applies, the plaintiff fails to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6).*fn17 For the reasons stated in the margin, we conclude that the ministerial exception is properly raised in a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.*fn18 We therefore review Petruska's complaint under that rule.

So construing the motion to dismiss, we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. See Jordan v. Fox Rothschild O'Brien & Frankel, Inc., 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). Our review is plenary. Id. Petruska's allegations, and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from them, must be deemed true, and must be viewed in the light most favorable to her. See Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 350-351 (3d Cir. 2005).

Petruska's complaint alleges that she was demoted because she is a woman. The complaint states that Gannon's acting President, Thomas Ostrowski, told Petruska that she was to be demoted ...


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