Come All Ye Faithful: Catholic School Receives Coal for Christmas in Recent Massachusetts Ruling
Last week, a Massachusetts state court ruled on a motion for summary judgment finding that an all-girls Catholic School (Fontbonne Academy in Milton, Massachusetts) had violated Matthew Barrett's civil rights when it withdrew a job offer after Barrett listed his husband as his emergency contact person on the school's "new hire" employment form. The school rescinded the employment offer noting that it had an expectation that employees would model the school's values—including the Catholic Church's opposition to same-sex marriage. Barrett than sued the school alleging violation of state non-discrimination law, claiming that the decision violated state law because the school refused to hire him "because of . . . [his] sexual orientation."
While the school is "a sponsored ministry of the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Boston," only the school's administration, Theology faculty, and staff in the Office of Mission and Ministry are required to be members of the Catholic religion. Upon learning of Barrett's marriage, Sister Enright who was largely involved in the interview and hiring process and Mary Ellen Barnes, the school's Head of School, informed Barrett that they could not hire him because he was a spouse in a same-sex marriage, which was inconsistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Accordingly, there was direct evidence as to the relationship between Barrett's marriage and the rescision of the employment offer on the record.
The school sought exemption as an educational organization "operated, supervised or controlled by or in connection with a religious organization" under state law. The court, however, disagreed, finding that the school was not excluded from the definition of employer under state law as the school "does not limit membership, enrollment, admission or participation to Catholics." Specifically, the court noted that the Food Services Director (the position Matthew Barrett was hired for) did not have to be Catholic. Further, the school itself has a policy of non-discrimination with respect to sexual orientation and noted that it welcomes students of all faiths in its student body, including non-Catholics. Additionally, insomuch as the school attempted to argue that the refusal to hire was based off of Barrett's marriage, and not his sexual orientation, the court rejected this argument as unpersuasive.
In addition to the statutory ruling, the court also rejected the employer's claims that its actions were appropriate under the Constitution under expressive association of the First Amendement and the Free Exercise Clause. The decision has been called a first-of-its-kind after the Supreme Court's June ruling in Obergefeel v. Hodges as it is the first time a court in the United States has determined whether a religious organization can rely upon a state law exemption or constitution protection to reject a worker who has a same-sex spouse.